By Nadine Ono.
Twenty-one-year-old Brian was a teenager when he experienced a personal tragedy, which led to heavy drinking and eventually a felony DUI. He was sent to jail and upon release on probation, he didn’t have a high school diploma or a job — a tough start for anyone who wants to get their life back on track.
As a low-level offender, Brian was a perfect candidate for the Riverside County Probation Department’s Bridge Program, which works with a select group of 18 to 23-year-olds to help them successfully complete probation and to reduce recidivism.
The program was developed last year when Riverside County Superior Court Judge Becky Dugan noticed a number of young offenders coming through the court system. This group was typically undereducated, dealt with moderate to substantial substance abuse issues and lacked maturity.
Rudy Lovato, a Riverside County Probation Department division director explained, “She (Judge Dugan) sat down with us and we came up with a program that includes mandatory educational services, family unification services and vocational services to try to get them on track, out of the system and never come back.”
The reasoning behind the program is that the participants, with the right resources and interventions, can find more success completing probation and living a life outside of the criminal justice system. They work with Probation Officer Jose Valdez, who handles all 15 of the program’s clients to make sure they are on the right track in all aspects of their lives, including developing positive social skills, creating and maintaining strong family relationships, remaining substance abuse free, making sure their educational and employment goals are met.
Participants use the Probation Department’s Day Reporting Centers as the main resource for activities like working toward their GED, finding employment and other classes that work with clients on substance abuse issues and social skills.
“It’s like a ‘big-brother’ feeling, like a mentorship,” said Valdez. “I think that’s what it is between the ages of 18 and 23. I think everybody, mostly young men from that age group, needs somebody to guide them because they couldn’t make the right decisions for whatever reason.”
One of the program’s architects, Deputy Probation Officer Daniel Ulrich noted, “The biggest thing that I found was that a lot of these kids don’t have a lot of support from their families. They come from homes where they didn’t have a positive influence in their life, a role model, a mentor. Even just reporting for an appointment is a struggle.”
The Bridge Program is seeing early success. Since it began last year, 18 clients have gone through the program with only three unable to complete it. Six of the clients who didn’t have their high school diploma received their GED, three of those earning it within the last month. And, when a client successfully completes the program, they have the ability to return to court to have their charges either changed to a misdemeanor or dropped completely. This allows them to continue their lives without a felony on their record.
The Bridge Program is being studied by BetaGov, an organization that works with public agencies to use research to improve policies and practices. For this trial, Officer Valdez will communicate with half of his clients through texting with smartphones and half through phone calls, which is the traditional way. The idea is to determine which method of client communication creates the best outcomes.
The Bridge Program is one of the ways Riverside County is working toward reducing its recidivism rate, an important metric for a county under a court-ordered cap on its jail population. A recent jail utilization study conducted by CA Fwd’s Justice System Change Initiative team, found that more than 40 percent of the jail beds used in the study year (2014) was for “side door” entries, which are those in jail for court commitments, holds, warrants and technical probation and parole violations. Working with probation clients to secure their education and employment is a step toward keeping them from reentering jail through the side doors.
And for Brian, the Bridge program is providing a new start. He recently earned his GED and is set to start classes at Riverside Community College next semester.
“I’ve had a great experience with the Bridge program. Like when I came from jail, I got my GED, they put me in class – classes I didn’t think I needed at first. But as the classes went on, I slowly started to realize that certain parts of the class I can relate to and so some of the classes were really good to be in.”
Brian plans to major in business administration with a minor in accounting. His ultimate goal is to start his own business.
Editor’s Note: Brian’s name was changed to protect the privacy of the individual.