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Lake County's new criminal justice initiative aims to help defendants, former inmates re-entering society

Lake County Courthouse
Posted at 5:14 PM, Jun 17, 2021

PAINESVILLE, Ohio — Lake County Commissioners signed off on a new initiative to help bridge the gap between the community and the criminal justice system, meant to help those charged with a crime or trying to re-enter society.

“It’s a unique program,” Lake County Public Defender Vanessa Clapp said. “There’s not one like this in any of the county public defender offices.”

This newly former county position will spearhead the “criminal justice community engagement and outreach program,” which will work to increase community involvement in the criminal justice system and assist those who have been in jail and are looking to return to their communities.

“One big focus is to get the community involved,” Clapp added. “Many times the community is not [involved]. The criminal justice system is frightening and scary to folks.”

Another facet of this new program will be creating a bridge to communities in an effort to help ongoing cases and best represent defendants.

“The attorneys in my office, when they’re working on cases, will use his or her help to investigate the cases, to get some information we might not be able to get because we don’t have the connections,” Clapp said.

The new position is not just meant to help those when charges are first filed. The state of Ohio currently houses about 43,000 inmates inside its prisons.

Ohio Department of Corrections

About 30% of Ohioans released from prison find themselves back behind bars, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation & Correction. This new initiative hopes to lower that percent.

“Once folks get back into the community, they’ve lost their licenses, they have criminal records that keep them from getting a job,” Clapp explained. “The community engagement coordinator can work with my office [on that]. The goal of all of it is to not see these folks in the system again. We want them out living happy productive lives.”

Lake County Commissioner John Hamercheck told News 5 the project took years to come to life and was an idea cultivated with the help of Union Community Church’s Bishop Roderick Coffee.

Coffee passed away in 2020 before he could see the idea come to life.

“I could not conceive in the weeks before Bishop Coffee’s passing, when he said I know you’ll get this done, how deep that was,” Hamercheck said.

Coffee’s family were on hand for Thursday’s announcement of the new program, excited to see his legacy live on.

“This goes right into what he fought for,” his son, Roderick Coffee II, said. “[Dad] was very passionate about giving people second chances.”

Watch the full County Commissioners meeting here.