Editorial: County shorts probation at its own risk

Published: Thursday, Apr. 11, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 12A

"Take the typical 19-year-old meth addict convicted of burglary," a frustrated Sacramento Superior Court Judge Steve White explained to The Bee's editorial board Wednesday. "If I sentence him to probation in this county, I might as well drive him to the next house he's going to burglarize."

First as Sacramento County district attorney, and for the last decade, as a judge in the county's criminal courts, White has witnessed the public safety consequences of decimating Sacramento County's Probation Department. "Probationers know when they are being supervised or not," White says. "This is pivotally important to outcome on probation."

And in Sacramento, as The Bee's Brad Branan reported Wednesday, 92 percent of probationers are not being supervised. The Probation Department has lost 30 percent of its funding over the past five years. Staffing is down from 888 employees in 2008 to 620 today.

Sacramento has the fewest number of probation officers to probationers among the state's eight largest counties – a scant one officer for every 124 probationers.

As a consequence, when these offenders fail to comply with the terms of their probation – to pay restitution to their victims, for example, or avoid using illegal drugs, or stay away from gang members, or attend domestic violence classes – they risk nothing. No one is monitoring their compliance. There is no accountability. Not surprisingly, rates for repeat offenses are high. Last year in Sacramento County, 6.2 percent of probationers were sent back to jail or prison after committing new crimes.

Probation has always been the stepchild, the afterthought, of Sacramento's County's law enforcement establishment.

Part of it has to do with governance. The Sheriff's Department and the District Attorney's Office are headed by high-profile elected officials – politicians with clout. By contrast, the chief probation officer is appointed by the presiding judge of the Sacramento Superior Court.

Also, as a hybrid of cop and social worker, probation officers are not first responders, a fact Susan Peters, chairwoman of the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, emphasized when defending her budget choices.

"The police are the front line and most of my constituents want them out there arresting the bad guys," said Peters.

But the bad guys get out eventually. Neither the state nor the county has the resources or legal authority to lock them up forever. Thousands, like the 19-year-old meth addict White referred to, are released on probation in Sacramento County every year.

Public safety is better protected when someone is keeping tabs on that young man, making sure he stays drug-free, helping him to get a job or walking into his apartment unannounced from time to time to make sure he isn't holding someone's stolen Game Boy console.

Without probation there is no supervision, no services, and no accountability. And, as a result, our community is less safe.

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