Yuba and Sutter county probation officers are working under the theory that addressing the root causes of criminal behavior will decrease the chances former felony convicts will reoffend.

State law that went into effect in 2011 to keep lower-level felony offenders out of state prisons placed the responsibility of managing those offenders in the hands of county jails and probation departments. The changes are noticeable, both in the number of offenders managed and the approaches to managing them.

While chief probation officers in Yuba-Sutter say their departments are embracing the shift, and they think it's working, lack of clear county- and state-level data limits their ability to compare pre- and post-realignment recidivism rates. However, crime rates in both counties have remained stable, and in some cases, declined.

California's criminal justice system underwent a striking shift by prioritizing efforts to rehabilitate people convicted of low-level felonies, as opposed to sending them through the "revolving door" of state's prison, officials said.

In a recent presentation to county supervisors, Yuba County District Attorney Patrick McGrath called the shift "the new age of enlightenment" that is not going away.

In response to realignment and a 2009 law that reformed felony adult probation by requiring "evidence-based practices" in case management, both the Yuba and Sutter County probation departments revamped their approaches to handling clients in an effort to rehabilitate low-level criminal offenders.

Probation officers now work with an increased number of clients and have shifted their approach to identify the underlying needs of the offender, create a case management plan and provide treatment, including counseling, classes and skills trainings offered within the departments.

The increased programming is prioritized for those clients who would most likely benefit from the programs, according to Sutter County Chief of Probation Donna Garcia.

And probation officers have to prioritize their work because of increased caseloads, said Yuba County Chief of Probation Jim Arnold.

Since realignment was enacted in 2011, Yuba County has seen a 56 percent increase in the number of people managed by its probation officers. They're managing with fewer probation officers due to budget cuts.

Sutter County has seen an increase of 17 percent more clients, which they are managing with an increase in probation officers.

New approach to probation

"We're doing better than we were before, definitely," said Sutter County Chief of Probation Donna Garcia in an interview about the department's new approach of "evidence-based practices."

Probation departments are now implementing in-depth assessments and providing diverse programming, such as stress-management, batterer treatment, basic education classes and moral reconation (or moral reasoning) therapy.

The role of the probation officers is more dynamic, Arnold said. Probation officers have a variety of hats to wear: social worker, police officer and lawyer, he said.

"Our job is to redirect lives to make them productive members of society," he said.

Before the shift, probation officers overseeing adults were enforcing the orders of the courts without real knowledge of the client's very basic needs, according to Yuba County probation program manager Jeff Pask.

"Maybe a person was using drugs because they were sexually abused and that was never addressed," Pask said.

Now, clients undergo an assessment meant to identify what underlying issues exist and create a plan to address them, such as counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder or a drug treatment program.

"We get a stronger picture of what this person's background is," Pask said.

Probation departments have always focused on rehabilitation, but now the focus is even less on incarceration, Garcia said.

Under the new philosophy, if a person fails a drug test, they won't likely automatically get charged with a probation violation and sent back to jail for 60 to 90 days. Instead, probation officers use "flash incarceration" and the offender will be placed in jail for a day or two to sober up.

That way, the offender experiences an immediate consequence, but is not taken away from their family or job, Garcia said.

Throughout the whole process of current probation methods in Yuba-Sutter, the client has more responsibility and ownership over their own success, in part due to training of officers in motivational interviewing techniques, according to Pask and Arnold.

"Telling them, 'because I said so,' is not effective," Pask said.

Does it work?

In the long-term, counties will be able to get a clear picture of who is offending, how they are offending and if the outcome of probation programming has been successful. Both Yuba and Sutter county probation departments hired a data analyst to provide a picture of what is working and how.

But, the question of whether county probation departments and jails are more successful than prisons and parole in keeping people from reoffending is not clear.

"Anecdotally, it is working," Garcia said. "We could give numbers, but they don't mean a whole lot."

That's because the way that the information is tracked has evolved, as has the system of punishment for various offenses.

"Trying to get uniform data is going to be almost impossible," McGrath said.

A recent evaluation report released by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation showed a decrease in recidivism rates, in that fewer people released from prison during the 2009-10 year returned to prison than those released in the 2008-09 fiscal year.

However, data does not reflect the number of people that went to jail instead of prison, or those that were flash incarcerated, for example.

Yuba County District Attorney Pat McGrath said from his perspective as a the top prosecutor in Yuba County for the last two decades, he is not sure if the new system is actually breaking the "revolving door."

"I've seen people who I never would have thought would get their act together that have gotten their act together," he said.

Garcia said there will always be people who commit crimes. But as long as the probation department is helping people improve their lives, success has been achieved

CONTACT reporter Monica Vaughan at 749-4783 and on Twitter @MonicaLVaughan.

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