The Stone County prosecutors office is utilizing a tool to help young offenders who have been charged with crimes.
The MOJO program was implemented a few years ago thanks to a grant. The program is similar to drug court in several ways, but this program is designed to help people who are between the ages of seventeen and twenty five years-old.
When people are sentenced to MOJO by Judge Alan Blankenship, Rhonda Burk, who has worked in the prosecutors office for eleven years, is the person that they interact with most.
She says that most of the people in the program are charged with misdemeanor's for substance abuse and are placed in the intense program for up to two years. For those facing felony charges, the time period could be up to five years.
Prosecutor Matt Selby says his office takes a comprehensive approach to drug cases. "Possessing, using, making and selling illegal drugs are all illegal and are crimes. On the other hand, people with addictions have a disease, albeit, a disease brought on by a choice to get involved in an illegal activity. So we try to approach each case with the idea of providing the right combination of punishment, rehabilitation and treatment for that particular person and situation."
"Historically we had two options to address those needs - prison or probation. A few years ago we added drug court - an intensive treatment program - for people with serious addictions. However, we felt like we still have a major gap between traditional probation and drug court for people who do have a drug problem but don't necessarily have a serious addiction that requires the resources in time and money expended to place a person in drug court. To try and fill that gap we developed what we call our MOJO program that is run through the Stone County Prosecutor's Office. This is a program that provides more monitoring, supervision and help than traditional probation but not the intensive level of supervision and monitoring provided through drug court," said Selby.
Burk says the MOJO program, which may soon have to turn young people away because it is "near capacity," fills the gap between probation and drug court. Those taking part in the program have enhanced probation and are subject to random drug testing and monitoring. They must also receive their high school diploma or GED.
"I refer most of my kids to a counselor for the program that is right for them," said Burk. "We're seeing younger and younger offenders...some that are even homeless and need public assistance. Usually at the end of our first meeting they have told me two life changing stories in their life."
"I am not aware of any program similar to MOJO except for one in Hawaii which developed over the last several years as a lower level response to addiction motivated criminal offenders. Both programs developed independently of each other, but have many similarities in terms of
structure and targeting persons with substance abuse issues who do not need the intensity of drug court. At the National Association of Drug Court Professionals conference last summer, we listened to a presentation describing Hawaii's program. Rhonda turned to me and said "Judge, that is
just like MOJO!," said Blankenship.
Burk says the hardest part for most of them is individual counseling "because of issues they've never had to deal with. We're here to try and get them to the next level in life so they can be successful."
It hasn't been easy for Burk to witness some of the things she sees on a daily basis. "Yes, there are times when I've gone home and cried. I have a soft spot in my heart for kids that need an extra lift up."
But she also revels in their successes. Sometimes when I'm out with my real kids someone I've helped will come up to me and give me a hug or tell me about their life. My kids will say.....let me guess - one of your kids."
Judge Blankenship says, Rhonda, who also serves on the Drug and DWI Court teams, does a tremendous job working with offenders in the MOJO program helping them take responsibility for their lives and getting them on track to living productive lives. "She applies her knowledge and skills to help younger offenders referred to the MOJO program. By focusing on treatment, drug testing, education, job training, and accepting personal responsibility, she successfully redirects many persons into living successful crime free lives. She is a valuable asset to our county. Her work makes our county safer and saves money."
"Rhonda does a great job!," said Selby. "She is currently supervising and working with over sixty people in her program. Success comes in many ways. It may be by helping one of her clients complete high school and graduate on time, obtain a GED, get a driver's license back, find a job, have a drug free baby or get into college. Success is helping a person develop the skills to stay off of drugs. Sometimes success is catching a person using drugs and getting him or her into a more intensive treatment program such as drug court before the person ends up in prison. Rhonda has had all these types of successes with the MOJO program and many more that are too numerous to describe. We regularly have young adults tell us that they have been using drugs on a regular basis since they were 12 or 13 years old and they didn't realize that life could be so good without the drugs."
"I feel blessed that Matt ( Selby) has let me run with this," said Burk.