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BLOOMINGTON — Gary Brown knows his chances of staying out of jail hinge on his ability to change his own mind about criminal behavior.

"It came to the point where I was done. I needed help changing my way of thinking," said the 40-year-old, who recently celebrated one year of being clean and sober.

Brown, of Bloomington, is one of 14 men in the Moral Reconation Therapy group led by the Center for Youth and Family Solutions (CYFS) for people on probation for drug offenses. Similar groups meet at the McLean County jail and Chestnut Health Systems. The program's name refers to the examination of a criminal's decision to act solely on a desire for something, such as drugs or possessions.

Started in October with a $30,000 grant from the McLean County Health Department, the MRT program is based on a unique 12-step approach that requires participants to squarely face their bad habits, and develop ways to stop the cycle that has repeatedly delivered them to the doors of the criminal justice system.

Gene Kelley had to deal with his anger toward the world as part of his path to change.

"A lot of my issue was changing my attitude, digging deeper into who I am. It's been a long road in and out of jail since I was 13, and prison twice. I feel this is one of my last options, but it feels different this time," said Kelley, 36, of Bloomington.

Doug Braun, community outreach coordinator for the CYFS, said group members are not shy about calling each other out when old patterns of manipulation and dishonesty surface during the 90-minute weekly sessions.

"This is a very structured program, based on a delayed gratification approach. They decide when a person is ready to move to the next step," said Braun, who supervises the group with Matt Searby and Sara Chlebanowski.

For Jerome Lockett, the key concept in the MRT program is honesty.

"I needed to change my core beliefs. That required me to start being honest with myself and others," said Lockett, 55, of Bloomington.

The four members of the MRT group who agreed to be interviewed by The Pantagraph view their previous prison terms as devoid of meaningful opportunities for long-term change.

"Sending us to prison helps us to be smarter criminals. This is giving us the tools to fix ourselves," said Brown.

The Department of Corrections uses cognitive behavioral therapy with inmates, a treatment with similarities to MRT and "widely accepted as the best practice for the criminal justice population," said IDOC spokeswoman Stacey Solano.

While time behind bars may convince some people a law-abiding life is the best option, for others change comes later — after a higher price is paid.

"I remember that I couldn't wait to get out and do it again," said Donny Smith, referring to getting involved in drugs. The 50-year-old Bloomington man also is making his way through the course that takes 12 and 16 weeks to complete.

The changes that help offenders overcome their criminal thoughts also repair relationships torn apart by years of bad behavior, said the MRT participants.

"Now I have a relationship with my son. My mom wouldn't trust me, but now when I say I'm gonna do something, I do it. Things are changing," said Smith.

A group of 10 male inmates at the county jail also attend MRT sessions. Jackie Mathias, with inmate services, said members recruit others to join.

"They all choose to be there. I think it's been helpful and they are taking it really seriously, At least one person said this is the first time he's bothered to attend a group," said Mathias.

Operating under the theory that a short time in a program is better than no time, the jail encourages inmates who are headed to prison to complete as many steps as possible before their transfer.

"The program gives them something positive to focus on while they're here," said Mathias.

Drug court members who may be sent to jail for violating terms of their probation continue their MRT work during their jail stay.

Tammy Rodgers, director of adult chemical dependency services at Chestnut Health Systems, said six women in a new MRT group also are responding well to the curriculum.

"We're trying to get clients to see that they are not an island and how they behave affects others around them. It's much more powerful for them to challenge and hear from each other," said Rodgers, who expects new members to be added to the group.

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McLean County Courts Reporter

McLean County courts reporter for The Pantagraph.

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