Editorial: Probation chief needs a vision to fight crime

Published: Tuesday, Apr. 23, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 8A

Sacramento County has been without a chief probation officer since November. A nationwide search is under way, led by the presiding judge of the Juvenile Court.

The importance of this appointment cannot be overstated, as California realigns its criminal justice system and shifts more responsibility to counties. The Probation Department runs juvenile hall, monitors probationers and writes probation reports for judges. As a result of realignment, it's also responsible for supervising nonviolent, non-serious and nonsexual offenders who are diverted from costly state prisons. The goal is to keep those lower-level offenders out of jail and the community safe.  

Historically, probation has been a neglected partner in the criminal justice system. The chief probation officer is appointed by the courts, but boards of supervisors fund the department. The head of probation reports to two masters, the courts and the county. Their priorities don't always align. 

When competing for limited funds, probation invariably comes up short. But the problem goes beyond governance and funding.

The Sacramento County Probation Department long has lacked effective leadership and vision. Its primary response to realignment, day reporting centers, is a good example of that.

Widely derided as ineffective, the centers offer too little practical assistance, mostly referring ex-offenders to services elsewhere in the county.

To be effective, Sacramento's new chief probation officer must collaborate with the sheriff, the district attorney, police chiefs and the courts to devise strategies that keep our communities safe without resorting to expensive incarceration.

The department should not be fighting to hire more probation officers to staff ineffective day reporting centers. More progressive probation departments do not use realignment to expand their turf, but to champion more cost-effective community programs to help ex-offenders stay out of trouble.

 The Sacramento County Office of Education sponsors one proven model, the Sacramento Community Based Coalition. It offers vocational training, housing, and drug and alcohol counseling and more to ex-inmates, all under one roof. Yet Sacramento County declined to contract with SCBC to serve realigned probationers.

By contrast, law enforcement leaders in neighboring Yolo County enthusiastically adopted the program, to the benefit of probationers and, ultimately, the public.

To be effective, Sacramento County's new chief probation officer must have the courage to acknowledge what's not working, and what can work. He or she must have the skills to nudge the criminal justice system away from ever-more expensive incarceration toward programs that help rehabilitate criminals, understanding that almost all of them will get out.

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