MERCED — When Dylan Thompson, 25, got out of prison in November for possession of 3.5 grams of meth and stolen stereo equipment, it was only the latest chapter in a long criminal history for the Merced native.
"Honestly, dude, since I was 12 years old, I think I've only had three months where I wasn't on probation or parole," he said.
Thompson started using meth at about 13, after being placed in a group home because his father was sent to prison. When his father made parole, they were reunited -- and started using together.
"I know what it's like growing up without a dad," Thompson said. "My Dad was a drug addict. He let it get the best of him, and he had a massive heart attack because of meth. I don't want that life for my kids."
After being released from prison, Thompson was referred by law enforcement officials to Behavioral Interventions, a day reporting center which with the county contracts.
"I loved it," Thompson said. "I know I have a problem with drugs and alcohol, but I also know that when drugs and alcohol are taken out of my life, I'm still left with me. That's why I like BI better than all the other programs I've been to. They focus on the whole behavior modification -- changing the way you think and changing the way you act and feel."
Thompson is one of about 400 offenders who have been referred to the rehabilitation program since it started in 2008.
County law enforcement officials believe so strongly in the program's success that they recently increased their payments to Behavioral Interventions -- allowing 65 people to be enrolled in the program at one time, up from 50.
"It's extremely intensive," said Scott Ball, chief of Merced County Probation. "It's kind of the Cadillac of day reporting centers. They receive vocational, educational, drug counseling (and) cognitive behavioral counseling."
Not everyone who enrolls completes the program, but in four years more than 100 people have graduated -- with about 74 percent avoiding arrest for a new violation.
The program first assesses and then creates a curriculum for each individual.
Depending on a person's identified needs, he or she is assigned to attend different "groups" -- including life skills, parenting, substance abuse, anger management and employment readiness.
"Why poke and prod someone who's been poked and prodded for the better part of their life, and it hasn't worked," said Jennifer McKenzie, program manager for Behavioral Interventions.
"All the research out there says you go in with cognitive behavioral therapy with the offender population and you're going to get better results," McKenzie said.
The program's core philosophy is something called "moral recognition therapy," which was developed by psychologists in prisons during the 1980s and gained wider acceptance in the '90s.
The basic idea is to encourage individuals to repeatedly talk about their past and outline future goals in a group setting. The group facilitator focuses discussions on evaluating behavior to change how an offender makes decisions and judgments.
The program worked for Jose Ramirez, 25. He'd been on probation for eight years, but in 2007 he served time in state prison for selling cocaine for a criminal street gang.
Ramirez was still hanging out with gang members in 2009 when his wife reported him to probation for smoking marijuana. After he was released from the county jail for that violation, he was referred to Behavioral Interventions.
"What made me want to stop was I felt bad because I had put my family through so much already," he said. "I was like, 'This is getting old.' "
It wasn't easy, Ramirez said, but after about 18 months in the program, he graduated. Today he owns Jose's Fresh Start Lawn Care and an auto shop in Atwater.
"I got a taste of real society," Ramirez said. "Since I was a little kid, I wanted to open my own business. So it gave me motivation to start it and since then it's been flowing. Man, it's wonderful. It's something I can't explain, because where I came from, it's just a bad life."
However, where Ramirez succeeded, many people do not: More than half the people enrolled in the day reporting center drop out or go back to jail before they graduate.
Thompson, for example, recently stopped attending the program, going on a month-long drug binge.
Fearing that social services would take way his 3-year-old son, Thompson turned himself in, served two weeks in jail and is now living at his parents' house with his wife and child.
"Just being clean and sitting here at my mom's house isn't working," he said. "I still catch myself numerous times throughout the day getting antsy, wanting to take off and go see what somebody's doing so I'm not alone. You become what you surround yourself with, like it or not."
Thompson said he is contemplating spending $7,000 of his savings on an intensive 28-day drug treatment program in Napa County. After that, he said, he might re-enroll at the Behavioral Interventions day reporting center.
"That sense of self-motivation to get up and go in the morning and go beat the pavement and look for a job, I've never done that before in my life.
"All I've done is sell drugs my entire life. But it's not helping anything," Thompson said. "I can't be the dad I want to be to my son when I'm getting high."
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or email@example.com.
BY THE NUMBERS
Behavioral Interventions day reporting center in Merced has seen more than 400 adult offenders since the program started locally in 2008.
The county pays about $58,000 a month to Behavioral Interventions for up to 65 clients to attend the day reporting center at one time.
Average attendance for the 20-plus-hour-a-week program is 89 percent.
The average length of stay in the program is 150 days.
About 100 people have graduated from the program in the past four years.
About 26 percent of graduates have been rearrested.