Probation Chief: Changes are Working

Public safety realignment – the state’s new approach to dealing with felony criminals – is being met with skepticism but its potential for reducing recidivism has been emphasized by the county’s chief probation officer.

Realignment and the new programs associated with it were referenced in a proclamation on National County Government Month approved at the April 2 Board of Supervisors meeting. Into its second year, realignment shifts the detention and post-release supervision of non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual felony offenders from the state system to the county’s.

It also involves a shift in approach, as rehabilitation programs and alternatives to jail are key aspects.

Known as “smart justice,” the new approach is “the theme of this year’s celebration” of County Government Month, said Bill Damiano, the head of the county’s Probation Department, adding that it contrasts some of the methods it’s replacing.

“There are examples of not so smart justice, of wastefulness of county tax dollars as well as focusing on services that are minimally effective,” he told supervisors. “In fact, there are practices out there that have been employed over the years that actually make criminal offenders worse – so we recognize that.”

Damiano said studies have shown that punitive approaches yield a five percent reduction of recidivism (re-offense) rate. That’s about the same as random chance, he continued, while behavioral programs have effected a recidivism reduction rate of 25 percent.

A Eureka-based Community Resource Center, funded by the state and established when realignment began, is the headquarters of the county’s post-release supervision programs. It includes mental health, substance abuse and cognitive therapy counseling staff.

The center’s programs augment those put in place prior to realignment. They’re part of a new method of dealing with repeat offenders, one that substitutes jail for prison.

“We used to have the deterrent effect on formal felony probation of prison, if they failed on probation,” said Damiano. “That’s no longer the case for a majority of these offenders – now they’ll go to jail.”

The use of “split sentencing” mixes incarceration with post-release supervision, where behavioral programs are applied to those considered to be moderate and high risk offenders. The goal is “addressing addictions, getting peoples’ lives turned around, getting them stabilized in clean and sober houses and working or back in school,” Damiano said. “And we’ve seen incredible results in those programs – the outcomes have saved the county literally millions and millions of dollars in incarceration costs and restored offenders and their families, which I think is just immeasurable.”

But realignment’s gains are being overshadowed by an apparent downside – low-level offenders once held in jail are now cited and released to allow enough capacity for a new jail population made up of those who would have been sent to prison under the former system. That change has been linked to recent upticks in petty crimes and property crimes.

And some of the non-serious felony offenders in the county system have criminal histories that include serious offenses. The county’s Correctional Facility is housing more hardened criminals now and they stay in the community after they’re released.

Damiano said his department is handling about 1,600 felony probation cases and about 40 percent of them involve high risk offenders. The realigned population – offenders who would have put in the state’s prison and parole systems prior to realignment – is about 80 percent high risk.

They’re the ones who’ve repeatedly been on probation and parole. “These were all the failures, we knew they were going to be a challenging bunch,” said Damiano.

“It’s a little troubling,” said Supervisor Estelle Fennell. Noting the increase of high risk individuals in the county’s system, she asked, “How do we balance those things out and protect the community as best we can?”

The ones who aren’t receptive to the new programs – and may even try to undermine or “pollute” them – are the ones who get the jail beds. “We monitor them and hold them accountable and when they screw up we put them in jail … because that’s all that we can do with them,” Damiano said.

But he added that there’s “a huge number of people that we can intervene with,” including those considered high risk. And Damiano said that under the county’s new system, moderate and high risk offenders have seen a 75 percent rehabilitation rate.




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