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Closer scrutiny coming for jail alternative housing program

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LA CROSSE, Wis. (WXOW) -- Drug arrests last month at one of La Crosse County's jail alternative housing programs is prompting more scrutiny.

Four women were arrested at Ophelia's House in February for various drug charges. Now, La Crosse County is implementing drug dog visits to the house as part of ramped up supervision.

Justice Sanctions Director Jane Klekamp said the searches shouldn't affect the overall mission of Ophelia's House, but it might help some residents realize the severity of their situation.

Klekamp said they are also asking an expert from the National Institute of Corrections to help re-evaluate the program at the end of May.

Despite the setbacks, La Crosse remains at the forefront of alternatives to jail sentencing for low risk offenders. Take, for example, Cynthia Gleason.

Gleason has plenty of reasons to be hopeful.

"I have a seven year old daughter and a nine month old son. I'm engaged to a great guy," she said.

That's not to mention the 28-year-old is going back to school, pursuing a degree in human services.

"[I'm] doing far better than I imagined."

It's looking back that reminds Gleason of the pain she suffered.

"It seems so surreal at this point. It all seems like a bad dream."

She said she lived a normal life. Then, a few years ago, it all came unraveled.

"In 2009 I was introduced to some heavier drugs than I had done," Gleason said. "I went through a divorce at the same time."

Methamphetamine and marijuana tore Gleason away from her daughter, sending Gleason to jail five times. Drug use became a way of life.

"The temptation was strong. I didn't know that giving up the same routines and the people in my life that were also using was so necessary."

Gleason's probation officer finally suggested La Crosse's drug court program, which led her to the YWCA-run Ophelia's House.

YWCA Executive Director Ruthann Schultz said, "We want to be able to, with the support of justice support services, create good, clean plans for each woman."

The approach taken by Ophelia's House is based off a woman offender case management model from the National Institute of Corrections which suggests a more tailored approach for lower-risk woman offenders.

"The range is wide and varied, so for me it's a combination of their readiness to make some changes, and the plans, goals that are set up," said Schultz.

On top of standard oversights like electronic monitoring, the core practices include things like recognizing the strengths and needs of each woman, building links for them within the community and providing services that aren't limited to their stay at the house.

Schultz said, "The other piece of that is that the YWCA has other programming that the Ophelia's House women are invited to engage in whether it be our employment readiness program or whether or not they're in need of continued shelter after they leave Ophelia's House."

But the burden of rehabilitation doesn't fall exclusively on the shoulders of those providing the services. And that's when problems can arise.

Gleason said, "There was the bad there too. You can't expect everyone to change unless they want to."

Gleason had her motivation, and finally found the support to change her ways. Now, the dark spot in her past serves as a constant reminder of what could have been, and Ophelia's House the beacon that helped guide her home.

"The hope was definitely there. Without it, I would maybe be dead, maybe still be using. I wouldn't have my daughter back."

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