Providing a fresh start

Counselor, Employee of the Year, works with first-time offenders

October 28, 2007|By Ben Block | Ben Block,Sun reporter

If her clients don't follow her advice, Joselyn Brown's initial gentle sweetness can quickly turn serious as her stern motherly love takes hold.

"She doesn't fool around; she's serious about getting people to behave," said Timothy J. McCrone, state's attorney for Howard County.

For the past 14 years, Brown has worked as the diversion counselor with the state's attorney's office in Howard County. The program offers first-time offenders 18 and older a get-out-of-jail-free card, of sorts. In lieu of a court appearance for minor alcohol or marijuana possession charges, their records will be cleared if they follow her guidelines, which can include drug-free living, education classes, community service and whatever else she sees fit.

"Whatever problems you go to diversion with, we want to resolve," said Brown. "We don't want to half-fix you, we want to whole-fix you."

After helping establish the program and often running it herself, Brown will be honored by the county as its Employee of the Year at its employee recognition banquet at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Ten Oaks Ballroom in Clarksville.

"I think the diversion program is one of the best things we have going in the state, and Joselyn Brown is one of the persons who really, sincerely cares for the people who come into her office," said Jeannie Pantazes, director of Counseling Resources Inc., which has a contract to treat many of the diversion program's clients.

Participants who follow Brown's advice can get a fresh start, while those who don't face an uphill battle.

Brown recalled one client two years ago who entered her office for a marijuana possession charge with visible signs of depression. Brown asked him if he felt like hurting himself, which he did. After a brief hospitalization, he received anti-depression medications and successfully completed the diversion program, Brown said.

In a case three years ago, a depressed 19-year-old client refused to take medications despite agreeing they significantly improved his mood and productivity, Brown said. Because he did not follow his prescribed treatment, he was sent back to court and faced penalties.

"You occasionally come across someone you can't help," Brown said. "I want him to stay, I want him to complete, but ... this is a voluntary program. I don't force them into it."

More defense attorneys have become aware of the amnesty option in recent years, leading to annual increases in cases. Last year, Brown processed 757 cases, 171 more than in 2003.

"That's almost 1,000 cases [last year] the District Court judges don't have to deal with in a system already challenged for resources," McCrone said. "These are relatively minor offenses. We can have a greater positive impact by sending them through the educational aspect."

Brown's program tracks her clients for a year after they finish. McCrone said the program appears to be reducing participants' addiction, or at least they are learning how to avoid being rearrested. About 75 percent of participants complete their education or treatment, and 85 percent of them do not reoffend in the next year, according to state's attorney's office statistics.

Brown, who will turn 50 in December, has worked for the state's attorney's office since 1993 - a few months after the diversion program began. Before that, she worked for five years as a counselor with the state's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services in Baltimore, first as a criminal investigator and later as a counselor in addiction services.

Brown spent most of her childhood on a farm in Orwell, Ohio, about 60 miles east of Cleveland, where she was born. Her first job at age 7 was selling food at the family's produce stand.

"Nobody believes I come from a farm," Brown said. "It really trained me well for what I do because you deal with so many people from different walks of life."

After graduating from Notre Dame College of Ohio in 1980, she left to visit her father in Baltimore. He had suffered a stroke that summer, so she stayed to care for him and has lived in Baltimore ever since. She earned a master's degree from the University of Baltimore.

In Baltimore, Brown would counsel her clients and then rarely see them again. She said she came to Howard County to offer long-term assistance and find out if she could make a difference.

As the county's Employee of the Year, Brown said, she hopes the recognition will raise awareness of her program. She will receive a plaque and $1,000, but she said seeing progress in her clients is all the motivation she needs.

"[My clients] may not understand this, but I really love them. When they have disappointments or hurts, I hurt with them," Brown said. "I used to say, `No, I have no children.' Now I say I have a program full of them."

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