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A more caring manner toward probationers

May 7, 2012
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Substantial changes to system in Calif. are benefiting offenders in recovery

As a former sheriff, Gene DeHerrera spent the early years of his career in arrest mode, so in his transition to work as a probation officer he felt most at ease with the concept of nabbing violators.

In the past couple of years, however, this Calaveras County justice system worker and many of his colleagues across California are speaking a new language in probation—one that is addressing broad-based criminogenic needs and focusing on treatment and recovery for offenders with substance use problems.

The results that DeHerrera says he has observed have been nothing short of revolutionary within the justice system in his community. “For the first time on a day-to-day basis I’m seeing change in the community, and change in the offender,” he says.

DeHerrera serves as one of many front-line workers in a state-fueled effort to redefine probation services in California in order to reduce probation failures and limit return to incarceration. In 2009, state legislation that was adopted as Senate Bill 678 gave counties a financial incentive to adopt evidence-based initiatives that would improve probationers’ outcomes and would result in fewer of them returning to custody in state facilities.

Calaveras County, a largely rural community east of Sacramento, was able to reduce the repeat incarceration rate for probationers from 11% to 4% as a result of its initiatives, says the county’s chief probation officer, Teri Hall. The financial windfall from the state to the county as a result of this: $367,000 a year for each of the past two years, money that has among other things helped the county establish an alternative sentencing program.

Hall says of the new approach to working with probationers, “It’s been a godsend. We had no idea we would get this kind of money from the state.”

Peer-driven groups

Calaveras County launched its effort by identifying DeHerrera and fellow probation officer Stephen Siegel to receive training in implementation of the Courage to Change curriculum developed by the Carson City, Nev.-based organization The Change Companies, which publishes materials designed to facilitate client change. The curriculum employs interactive journaling in group sessions that address subject areas such as responsible thinking, self-control and peer and family relationships. DeHerrera says participants largely drive the topics.

“We take a head count and ask, ‘How many of you think this is what you’d like to work on first?’” he says. “We do this so that we’re dealing with the things they really want to deal with.”

Participation in the two-hour weekly sessions is entirely voluntary, but in just a few years the number of participants in Calaveras County has grown substantially, even to the point where some individuals were continuing to attend sessions even after they had completed probation. The offenders are carefully evaluated for recidivism risk, and the individual factors in their lives that contribute to this are assessed.

Participants usually stay involved for nine months to a year in total, says Hall. Group outings and community service also are incorporated, with family members of probationers routinely brought in. “You have to include the whole family—you can’t just zero in on the offender,” she says.

The weekly sessions deal with topics around recovery and life issues in a frank manner, with participants often correcting others in an open process that the department generally refers to as “getting naked.” This necessitated a change in mindset for the probation officers as well.

“When you walk into this setting you’re no longer a probation officer,” says Hall. “You put down your authoritative role. If you can’t do that, it will never work.”

Hall says her department’s officers become facilitators as opposed to authority figures in the sessions. They stop acting as enforcers and become agents of change. “I call it [DeHerrera’s] congregation,” she says of the groups.

DeHerrera adds in regard to the sessions, “Every week somebody breaks down in tears.” This is no typical command-and-control operation. “We say to the group, ‘This is where you can bring your garbage, talk about it, drop it here, and go home happy,’” DeHerrera says.

Another criminal justice initiative that state lawmakers approved subsequent to Senate Bill 678 was Assembly Bill 109, which transfers from the state to counties the responsibility for supervising lower-level offenders and parolees from the state Department of Corrections. In essence, these moves to address spiraling criminal justice costs at the state level have brought about more local-level innovation in addressing offenders who face barriers to successful re-entry, including substance use problems.

“AB 109 has forced us all to adopt a cognitive-behavioral curriculum,” says Hall. “We keep it nonthreatening. The participants will connect in the groups.”