By Nadine Ono.
Before 2014, Riverside County’s criminal justice system had underutilized its data analysis making it difficult to address the challenges facing the county. With a court-ordered cap on the jail population and increasing budget demands, the county is now turning to data to determine how to stem the rising incarceration rates, which had been exacerbated by the 2011 Public Safety Realignment.
Riverside County has partnered with CA Fwd’s Justice System Change Initiative (J-SCI) project, which aims to help counties transform their criminal justice systems. The goal is to lower incarceration rates by making systems more efficient and finding alternatives and interventions for special populations, such as the mentally ill, substance abusers and at-risk youth. The county is one of three in the state currently partnering with CA Fwd to use data to lower their jail population.
The probation department took the lead in mining their data and evaluating the results. In 2014, their internal report found that over a three-year period, 19,000 felony probation violations had been filed, resulting in more than 20,000 arrest warrants. More than half of those warrants were for technical violations rather than committing new crimes. Additionally, more than 80 percent of those warrants were cleared by an appearance in court, showing the probationers’ willingness to resolve the situation.
The data analysis showed that the probation department was cycling thousands of people through the courts and jails for violating the conditions of their release, not for committing a new crime. The most common violation was failing to show up for a meeting with their probation officer. Not only was this increasing the demands on a costly and overcrowded jail, but it meant increased work for the probation staff and increased caseloads for the court system.
“If you have data, data will make the decision for you,” said Riverside County Chief Probation Officer Mark Hake. “It just allows us to more effectively manage the resources that we have. It allows us to target the specific problem areas or it allows us to better focus resources where they’re most needed.”
Chief Hake was not surprised by the results, but it did make him and his staff think about what their department could do to lessen the burden on the jails. Using the numbers from the report as a baseline, the probation department assembled a workgroup to determine how to tackle the problem.
One of the main areas on which the workgroup focused was the need for a department culture change for both supervisors and line staff. The data showed that staff needed to be more engaged with their probationers and become a positive resource to help them re-enter society. The analysis also allowed the staff to redouble some of their earlier efforts to help the probationers successfully complete their probation and stay out of jail.
As with any change there were challenges. The probation department was recovering from budget issues and layoffs that date back to the mid-1990s, which meant that for nearly two decades the department wasn’t fully staffed. That led to a culture where officers had too many cases and not enough time to fully engage with their clients, leading to issuing warrants for breaking rules instead of working with the clients for a more positive outcome. Almost an entire generation of the probation staff had been working in this culture.
“I think for Riverside County, it’s a shift in the mindset,” said Chief Hake. “It’s a shift in the focus from processing cases and moving files across your desk without much concern on how it gets off your desk to one of we want to see people succeed and in order to see people succeed, you’ve got to do more than just push paper.”
In the year since the report was issued, the probation department has realized a 25 percent decrease in warrants issued for probation violations. Without the baseline numbers, this data point would not have been discovered. And, without this discovery, jails beds would continue to be filled by probationers returning for technical violations, probation staff would continue to spend hours processing paperwork, and the courts would continue to be overbooked handling the cases.
“Chief Hake’s foresight opened the doors to a new way of thinking in Riverside County, which was welcomed by the leadership within the county,” said Scott MacDonald who is leading the J-SCI project on behalf of CA Fwd and the retired Chief Probation Officer for Santa Cruz County. “Considerable strides toward lowering the jail population are being made by collecting and analyzing the data from probation alone. That would not have been possible without his leadership.”
The next step for the Riverside County Probation Department is to narrow the data evaluation from department-wide to individual staff members to ensure accountability. “For us, it’s more a redefining what the department’s priorities are,” added Chief Hake, “what’s important to us and I really believe through that and retraining, staff will make that shift.”