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ASPEN aims to reach offenders before they offend again

"Powerful!! I will think about what I learned for (some) time."

"Thanks to ASPEN I have a better understanding and will be able to make better and smarter decisions. Thank you!"

Sentenced to the ASPEN of Minnesota program for usually alcohol- or drug-related offenses, participants often find they learn more than they expected, said Director of Programs Steve Andersen, a retired police officer.

ASPEN stands for Alternative Sentencing Program and Education Networks. It is promoted as a "second-chance life values program." Participants learn about the decision-making process and the implications of criminal behavior.

It does not consist of lectures - rather, the program is designed to encourage participants to open up, to discuss what led them to make the decisions they did.

"We're not here to judge you," Andersen said. "You've already been judged."

ASPEN teaches its students about the negative effects of criminal activity such as driving while intoxicated, drug use, minor consummation, disorderly conduct and domestic and sexual assault.

It is aimed at misdemeanor offenders.

"We want to get the kid before he (or she) gets carried away," he said.

Planting the seeds

ASPEN of Minnesota is based on the original ASPEN program in New Mexico that was started in 2001 by a pair of retired police officers.

Andersen came across ASPEN of New Mexico while researching ways to address the high number of alcohol- and drug-related offenses in northern Minnesota.

He noted how some judges have seen repeat offenders so many times they know them by their first names.

And, the cost to keep these people incarcerated is high, Andersen said.

"I wanted to know how we could have an impact and try to reduce these numbers," he said.

Andersen then started looking into alternative-sentencing programs, but became frustrated. They were all nonprofit or governmental programs funded by discontinued grants.

"The grants ran out," he said.

Then, he came across ASPEN of New Mexico. As a for-profit program, the offender pays to attend, and there is no cost to the city, county or state.

Andersen contacted the New Mexico program and went down south to sit it in on a class.

"I thought, 'Oh gosh, this thing is great,'" Andersen said. "This is something I think could be brought back to Minnesota."

Kevin Boyd, a retired police officer who helped found ASPEN of New Mexico, said it took a little while for the project to take off. It now is offered in nine New Mexico cities and has offices in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. More than 20,000 people have taken part.

The program strives to keep offenders from repeating their crimes "one person at a time," Boyd said.

Boyd said ASPEN of New Mexico has been contacted by police officers and state officials throughout the country, but "most are not in a position where they can initiate (the program)," he said. ASPEN needs to stand on its own, he explained, and should not be run through city or state agencies - and instructors should be retired law enforcement officers.

Still, Boyd said, he hopes to see similar programs throughout the U.S.

"There is a need for this type of program everywhere," he said.

After visiting New Mexico, Andersen returned to northern Minnesota and began talking with judges and County Attorney Tim Faver, who wanted to get a pilot program started.

"Everyone was very much in favor of the program," he said.

Recidivism, the rate at which offenders will repeat their crimes, is a "buzz word" in policing right now, Andersen said. Any program that can help reduce or lower the recidivism rate in an area or community typically is being embraced.

"It really is," he said. "Something's gotta' change."

A key piece of ASPEN is to employ retired police officers. Andersen said instructors are working to gain participants' trust and get them to open up about their experiences.

They don't want participants to fear being arrested when they walk out the door, Andersen said.

In order to be effective, Andersen said instructors have to "have the heart and compassion to do something different."

Working with ASPEN is a reversal of what police officers are trained to do: pursue and apprehend criminal offenders and get them placed in jail. Now, they work to keep these offenders out of jail in the future, to keep them from again breaking the law.

ASPEN takes root

The program began in northern Minnesota earlier this year. Andersen estimates that through July about 125 people to date had taken part.

The class, with about 30 participants, is offered 8:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. monthly; participants attend one session.

In the mornings, instructors talk about decision-making and how one person's choices affect the people around him or her.

Andersen said a question is posed to participants: How many of you are here because you made a mistake? Almost all of them usually raise their hands, he said.

But instructors quickly toss that explanation aside.

"You made a decision, a choice," Andersen said, explaining that a mistake is buying rye bread instead of white.

Instructors also cover the law and the court process. While many people are just relieved they didn't end up in jail, Andersen said they may not completely understand the conditions placed on their release.

Instructors want participants to understand that if they violate those conditions, they could end up "back in the system," Andersen said.

Laws discussed in the morning include minor consumption, shoplifting and theft, domestic and sexual assault and disorderly conduct.

Instructors also cover how the above charges can affect someone's life and potential employment. For instance, someone charged with disorderly conduct may be considered a violent person, he said.

In the afternoon, the class includes an overview of the dangers of alcohol and drugs, including marijuana, cocaine and crack, heroin, pharmaceuticals such as oxycodone, ecstasy, inhalers and methamphetamine.

The program concludes in the afternoon as each participant meets one-on-one with an instructor. They are asked to fill out an assessment, which helps instructors learn if they are headed toward committing more serious crimes.

If someone confesses to having an alcohol or drug addiction, they are guided toward organizations that may be able to help him or her. Participants also are able to discuss problems or experiences that may have contributed to their problems.

However, instructors are there to teach participants about the law and the dangers of using alcohol and drugs. Once a participant broaches a subject in which instructors are not trained, they will point the student toward someone better suited to help him or her.

"We are not counselors; we are not psychologists," Andersen said. "We're not here to psychoanalyze you, but we do know people who can."

Having female instructors also is important during one-on-one assessments. Females are more likely to talk with another female, Andersen said.

Turning a new leaf?

Those who take part in ASPEN often come in thinking, "Why am I here?" or "What is this going to be like? How boring will it be?"

But, when they leave, they have to fill out an evaluation form. Some have said that the fee for the program was the best money they ever spent - and most say they will make better choices in the future.

"Knowledge is power," Andersen said.

Steve Hagenah, who was an instructor with the program, said about 95 percent of the class evaluations are positive.

"Whether we get their attention for a day, weeks or months is up to the individual," he said. "But at least we got their attention."

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