Faith-based aid given to offenders

HOLLIDAYSBURG – A faith-based program that addresses the drug and alcohol problems faced by defendants in the Blair County criminal court is getting high marks from county officials and is being used more often by local judges as an alternative to incarceration in a state correctional institution.

Blair County Senior Judge Hiram A. Carpenter became the third local judge to order placement of a defendant in the program called Reformers Unanimous.

Kent Fluke of Hollidaysburg is the Reformers Unanimous director, and he appeared Tuesday in Carpenter’s courtroom to explain the program.

The judge had to decide if a Blair County inmate, Aaron Waddell, 30, of Altoona, was to be sent to a state correctional institution for treatment or if he would be allowed to enter a local program.

Carpenter eventually decided that the young man would remain in Blair County and undergo counseling through Reformers Unanimous.

Waddell’s attorney, Lucas Kelleher, asked the court to consider referral to Fluke’s program.

The defendant told the judge that he began participating in Reformers Unanimous while in the county prison, and he said, “now I’m in my Bible daily.”

He told Carpenter he wants to change his life, he wants to be a father to his newborn and he wants to get married.

His family, he said, is pulling for him.

Blair County parole and probation officer Marilyn Richards pointed out that Waddell has been through treatment in the past and her initial recommendation was that he be sent to a state correctional facility.

Waddell’s crimes were not serious. They included criminal trespass, possession of drug paraphernalia and disorderly conduct.

But court records indicate that he has had trouble following rules imposed by the Blair Adult Parole and Probation Office.

The judge asked the probation officer, “Any reason to believe [Reformers Unanimous] wouldn’t be a resource?”

Richards responded she had no reason to believe the new program would not be an acceptable resource.

Fluke said the program includes a meeting every Friday night at the Dry Run Independent Baptist Church, but he made the point that it is faith-based, and he said, “Until we change their spiritual side, we are not going to change their physical side.”

As part of the program, Waddell will be required to attend religious services, although Carpenter said he could not impose such rules on Waddell as a condition of probation.

Carpenter agreed to allow Waddell to remain in the county prison so he could participate in Reformers Unanimous, and he made the point, “In fact, we are desperate for resources for a problem [drug addiction] that is very serious in our community.”

Fluke said Reformers Unanimous is modeled on a program started by a former heroin addict. The program has 940 chapters throughout the world.

It has been in Blair County for two years but has become a program in the county prison only in the past six months.

Warden Michael Johnston said when he was approached about allowing Reformers Unanimous in the prison he and his staff decided to give it a go. He said the program would be reviewed by prison officials in the fall, but he has had no problems with it.

The prison’s treatment specialist, Abbie Tate, said Reformers Unanimous representatives come to the prison on Saturday nights for a group meeting with inmates.

“They got pretty good numbers,” she said, noting that as many as 30 inmates attend the Saturday night sessions.

She said the numbers have been “pretty steady” and Tate concluded, “I haven’t heard any negative feedback. I’m pretty well pleased with it now.”

The Friday night sessions have been drawing anywhere from 20 to 45 individuals, Fluke said.

Blair County President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva recently referred an Altoona man to the program who was in court because of a drinking problem that led him to become involved in three serious assaults in the last three years.

She also referred a Hollidaysburg man who nearly died of a heroin overdose to the program.

Judge Daniel J. Milliron in June told a 29-year-old Duncansville man to attend the program or face a long time behind bars.