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Sutter County's chief probation officer surfs ‘tidal wave'
State realignment, implemented through Assembly Bill 109 in 2011, is meant to reduce state prison populations by sentencing low-level felony offenders to county jails rather than prisons, and having parolees from state prison report to county probation offices rather than the state.
Supporters believe having felons serve sentences closer to home will both cut costs and increase the chance a felon will be able to return to their community when his or her sentence is up without offending again, while detractors said the result will be the early release of dangerous criminals because there's no room for them in county jails.
Christine Odom, Sutter County's chief probation officer, waited more than three decades for criminal justice system reform.
The Mid-Valley native started as an aide in the department more than 33 years ago, working as a line officer and supervisor before assuming the top spot in 1997.
But by the time California's realignment laws AB 109 and 117 were finally passed, Odom was set to retire.
"I stayed two more years," she said. "Realignment is the reason. I wanted to see this through."
Last week, Odom signed on to delay retirement yet again.
Her interim contract as an "extra help" employee will allow her to continue in her role for 90 to 180 days. The arrangement gives the county more time to search for a replacement and will help the department continue through ongoing realignment changes.
"It's the right time for her, personally, to retire, and she's being paid less money (under the interim contract)," said District Attorney Carl Adams. "In spite of that, she's coming back to finish up the work she started. I think that's noteworthy."
Adams, an outspoken critic of realignment, nonetheless counts himself as among Odom's chief admirers.
"We don't always agree, but she understands exactly where I'm coming from," he said. "And the system isn't entirely about punishment. It also focuses on services we can provide to help them (criminals) avoid trouble in the future."
Thanks in large part to Odom, a network of law enforcement, corrections and justice officials, as well as those from schools, mental health and other social services agencies was assembled long ago to help supervise Sutter County's criminals, Adams said.
"She was an architect of the Family Intervention Team," he said of the group that has met weekly since 1997 to discuss criminal supervision cases. "She (Odom) has always believed that if we could do things cooperatively, we could do them better and save money."
Adams sits on the board of the Family Intervention Team Foundation, a nonprofit organization that now helps raise money for the group's programs.
The work of probation officers has changed since Odom was hired as a full-time officer in 1979.
Probation had been associated exclusively with juvenile offenders and none of the officers carried weapons, Odom said.
Working to rehabilitate low-level criminals was not a serious part of the job either.
"In the past, if a juvenile got caught stealing a bike, you asked, 'Did you steal that bike?'" Odom said. "You didn't call CPS (Child Protective Services) and see if this kid might have been abused, and you didn't know if perhaps the mother had an open mental health case file."
As recently as seven years ago, Odom said, a normal caseload for a probation officer in the county was 140 offenders — about twice what it is today.
"We just cycled them through the system over and over and over again," Odom said. "It's the definition of insanity."
But when she took over leadership of the agency 15 years ago, Odom vowed to take a more comprehensive approach to the role of supervision.
"We looked at just what these families were bringing to us. We tried to do what we needed to improve outcomes for those families," she said. "Now, all of this is fairly common in juvenile systems."
But even for Sutter County, which tends to run ahead of the pack, realignment's dramatic overhaul has been daunting.
"It was a tidal wave," she said of her department during the first year. "It was massive change and it happened very quickly."
The first phase of reforms is beginning to settle in for her office, and Odom said she wants to help set up plans for the next set of changes before she leaves.