During County Government Month in April, CSAC is presenting blogs and short video features on 13 award-winning programs from nine counties that demonstrate effective, original and cost-conscious ways counties are serving their citizens.
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Ask Santa Cruz County Chief Probation Officer Scott MacDonald about the value of thinking outside the box and his eyes light up. If you want someone to promote the effectiveness of the current corrections system, then you better find someone else to talk to. MacDonald is quick to repeat the quote that “the corrections system needs to do more correcting and less collecting.”
For the past seven years, Santa Cruz County has been thinking outside the box on how it treats technical parole violators. Their program is called the Warrant Reduction Advocacy Project (WRAP) — and it’s working. Since the program’s inception, Santa Cruz County has been able to reduce warrants by more than 60 percent.
Rather than issue a traditional warrant, the county contracts with Friends Outside, a local nonprofit “that’s always had an interest in helping inmates return to the community and succeed,” MacDonald explains. When contacted by the Probation Department, Friends Outside staff works to find violators, using the contacts they have previously made. They notify violators of the problem and how they are facing a potential warrant. More often than not, the violator quickly reports.
“A lot of people go to prison for a cumulative failure of violating the rules of probation,” MacDonald says. “We see WRAP as not only saving a lot of jail space but also keeping people from that trajectory that lands them in prison. It’s a good example of the types of innovations we need to implement as we move forward with AB 109 prison realignment.”
WRAP was created after Santa Cruz County, faced with severe jail overcrowding in 2005, began to examine who was serving time. The analysis included probation’s impact on the jail system. The data showed that an offender spent an average of 40 days in jail when returned on a warrant. Many of these offenders were jailed on technical violations, such as not reporting to probation. We call it the ‘flake factor,’ ” MacDonald says.
“We saw an opportunity to try to be more proactive in reconnecting with probationers,” MacDonald says. Through WRAP and Friends Outside, “we are also able to connect with a mini-village of people around the offender who are the folks who will work with us to keep them together.”
Take probationer Noah Crisp, for instance. By all accounts, Noah is turning his life around. He’s clean, staying out of trouble and going to community college. But without WRAP, he would have ended back behind bars on a parole violation. Why? Because he didn’t realize he had to report since he had previously been on informal probation. Once he was alerted to the potential problem by Friends Outside, Noah quickly rectified the situation, ensuring there wouldn’t be a warrant for his arrest.
“The program has shown that crime is a community problem. It affects everyone. The solutions to it go beyond the probation department, go beyond the jail. You need to bring in your partners. We all have the same goals: we want to do justice and we want our communities safe,” MacDonald continues.
WRAP is saving the county significant money. “At $77.00 a day in jail, you do the math — compared to a modest investment in a nonprofit,” MacDonald explains. “ If we can find a way to correct behavior and get them on the right track without jail, not only are we saving money but we, in fact, are promoting public safety because we are keeping people successfully on probation and engaged in the community in a better way.”
WRAP also reduces indirect costs by freeing up time for the many criminal justice employees that are involved in the warrant process, such as a probation officer, law enforcement officer, a judge and district attorney.
“The program concept is very simple, but it represents a shift in thinking — a shift from the direction we have been on and that’s the hard thing to do,” MacDonald concludes. “We need to step back and ask, ‘Did this old way of doing business really make sense? Did it really produce the best public safety? Is it really the best use of our resources?’ On all accounts, the answer was no. WRAP is better public safety, it saves dollars and it’s the type of common-sense program we need to be implementing in this new environment.”
County government works, which is why Californians prefer to have programs and services managed and operated at the local level. The county programs featured by CSAC during County Government Month are 2011 CSAC Challenge Award recipients. These awards recognize the innovative and creative spirit of California county governments as they find new and effective ways of providing programs and services to their citizens. The Call for Entries for the 2012 CSAC Challenge Awards is being distributed this month.
David Liebler is the Director of Public Affairs and Member Services for the California State Association of Counties. He can be reached at dliebler.at.counties.org.