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Criminal Justice Update

Lessons in hope & compassion

It wasn’t a big graduating class, but the occasion was a big deal nonetheless.
Seven inmates — six women and one man — sat on folding chairs in a multipurpose room of the Sandusky County Jail in Fremont as they listened to Sheriff Christopher Hilton and Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost commend them for voluntarily completing a new merit-based education program that’s as much about hope as it is about learning.

Loved ones and educational partners made up much of the audience, with members of the news media also on hand. Tongues of flames decorated the walls, a can’t-miss reminder of the energy that the IGNITE program is meant to spark.

“We’re all flawed in different ways,” Yost told the graduates. “But each of us has dignity and intrinsic value as human beings, and IGNITE affirms that truth. … I believe that this day, which recognizes your graduation and the work you’ve done here, is what sets you apart and makes you ready for that second chance.”


As names were called and certificates of completion handed out, the emotion took center stage.
The first graduate, James Baker, looked to the audience and beckoned his son, Jacob, to join him. As the sheriff, his staff, the Attorney General, other graduates and the audience looked on, the two men — one awaiting trial on charges of aggravated vehicular homicide, the other pursuing a college degree in law enforcement — hugged. Then the tears came.

IGNITE was created by Sheriff Christopher Swanson in Genesee County, Michigan, in 2020 and was soon endorsed by the National Sheriffs Association. Nationwide, 10 IGNITE programs have been established and four more are about to launch. In total, jails in 13 states are participating. Each program reflects different stages of development and the unique needs and means of the individual sheriff’s office involved.

At its core, the program offers classes, taught by community partners, that help inmates with life skills, job preparedness, and post-incarceration work opportunities.

Beyond its educational benefits, the program creates a more structured environment for participating inmates and offers incentives, such as extended dayroom time and various food treats. More broadly, the program contributes to a safer atmosphere in the building.

Since launching in March, the Sandusky County IGNITE program has offered about 135 hours of classes. Topics focus on addiction and recovery services, mental health, financial literacy and home-buying basics, career readiness, and parenting education, said Caren Nemitz, who recently took over as program coordinator.

This was the second IGNITE graduation for the Sandusky County Jail and the first one open to the public. Twelve men and five women were in the inaugural class in May.

So far, the Sandusky County Jail is the only jail in Ohio to launch an IGNITE program, although other sheriffs have reached out to Hilton to talk about his success.

Hilton and several staff members were quickly sold on the program after traveling to Flint to see it in action at the Genesee County Jail.

When he committed to launching a program of his own, Hilton insisted that every participating inmate should  take four hours of mental health and addiction education. In fact, his insistence on addressing this core problem among inmates won over the Mental Health and Recovery Services Board of Seneca, Ottawa, Sandusky and Wyandot Counties, which provided essential funding to get the program off the ground.

And when he appealed to community partners to teach the courses, they were equally enthusiastic.
“The response we got from businesses and stakeholders in the area was unbelievable,” Hilton said.
Participating organizations include Alcoholics Anonymous and other addiction recovery and support organizations, a bank, a church, a packaging company, Local Ironworkers 55, and a nonprofit devoted to literacy, mental health and family stability.

Carlee Fairbanks, the jail’s first IGNITE coordinator who now directs the program, said the sheriff’s office wants to create an online platform for classes and a virtual reality program to teach skilled trades like carpentry and electrical services.

“We’ve only scratched the surface of what this program can be,” Hilton said. “This is about changing mindsets, changing the culture. We’re trying to provide opportunities so our inmates never walk back into this facility again. I want to see them all succeed.”

Sheriffs interested in starting an IGNITE program can reach Sheriff Hilton at (419) 334-6444 or