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Officials hope swift punishment will deter probation violators

Cuts at state level drove search for solutions at street level

The young woman insisted she hadn’t smoked marijuana recently. A urine test given by her probation officer came back positive for the substance, but she was sure it must have been traces left over from before she completed her rehabilitation program.

Stacy Garcia, who conducts probation violation hearings for the Washington Department of Corrections, didn’t buy it.

Garcia had a wide range of options for what to do next, from letting the woman off with a warning to sentencing the woman to weeks or even months in jail. Ultimately, she decided to order the woman to complete job-readiness classes at the probation office and attend weekly drug treatment classes.

For decades, corrections officials have seen that kind of flexibility as a valuable tool when addressing probation violations, because it helps them take into account an offender’s specific circumstances. But budget cuts have forced Washington to rethink the model, and in June state officials will throw it out in favor of a sweeping new system that test runs have shown might be better for both the offenders and the state budget.

In the new program, called swift and certain sentencing, an offender like the woman appearing before Garcia would immediately be sent to jail for one to three days, without a hearing, as soon as her probation officer learned she’d tested positive for drugs. Her probation officer could require that she complete other requirements, like drug treatment programs, but the one- to three-day jail sentence is guaranteed if she’s already had a probation violation. First-time violators can avoid jail, but time behind bars is mandatory for second, third or fourth violations.

Offenders who have higher-level violations or five or more violations go before a hearings officer and can be jailed for up to 30 days. In sum, offenders will go to jail more frequently but for much shorter periods.

“It’s quite a paradigm shift from what parole and probation is usually all about,” said Kevin House, community corrections supervisor for the Spokane Valley unit of the Department of Corrections. “They’re going to be arrested. That’s consistency that comes in. They’ll be arrested if they miss an office visit or don’t follow up on a job search.”

The change is predicted to save $15 million each year as the number of probation violations drops and the time spent in jail is reduced. The change also is expected to lead to layoffs for officers tasked only with conducting probation violation hearings. Those decisions will now be left to probation officers except for offenders who have had four or more violations.

About half the annual savings will be reinvested in treatment programs and other resources designed to help criminals stay out of trouble.

But even without those investments, research suggests that the program could help offenders in a more basic way: While longer jail sentences don’t improve compliance with parole conditions, limiting jail stints helps violators maintain their jobs and housing situations, bedrocks of starting a new, crime-free life.

The change in how the Department of Corrections handles parole violators comes after years of budget cuts and continuing financial pressures that have forced administrators to consider limiting supervision for even high-risk felons such as gang members or sex offenders, said Debbie Conner, DOC field administrator.

Major details in the swift and certain program still are being considered, such as where the inmates will be jailed. Under the program, which is backed by newly passed laws in the Washington Legislature, the corrections department can’t pay more than $85 per bed. Spokane County charges about $125.

The state currently ships Spokane-area violators to Benton and Lincoln counties. Transportation can take hours.

Also, “it’s going to be labor-intensive doing all these arrests,” Conner said.

Chad Lewis, Department of Corrections spokesman, said state officials expect a surge in reported violations when the program begins, but they hope the number will drop drastically over time as the swift punishment and accompanying treatment programs take hold.

“Research has shown that it does work in achieving compliance,” Conner said.

Thirty-five parolees in Seattle tested the program last year. After six months of short, automatic jail stints for violations, the offenders showed a 60 percent reduction in positive drug tests. They also were less likely to commit other violations and new crimes.

The model began in Hawaii in 2004 after a judge and former prosecutor became fed up with seeing probation violators for the first time only after they’d recorded scores of violations. Probation officers said they were torn between not seeking a punishment and seeing the violators jailed for weeks or months, which disrupted their lives and rehabilitative track.

Their solution, Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Reinforcement program, showed an 80 percent decrease in positive drug tests. The number of other violations by those on probation also decreased.

The short-term jail stints won’t address serious new crimes or particularly heinous violations. Probation officers can consider aggravating circumstances and will be expected to report criminal law violations to prosecutors for new charges much more frequently.

But Lewis said that for longtime criminals, “going to jail does not have the same life-altering effect” as it may have on someone else. “Offenders know how to do time.”

What many don’t know how to do is find and keep a job, stay off drugs and maintain a home. That’s why officials plan to invest in more programs to help violators instead of keep them in jail doing nothing.

Len Bush, whose son, Mark Bush, is on DOC supervision and is known as a repeat property crime offender, said anything that limits time in jail and gives more opportunities to work is welcome.

“I always say he needs to be out working and doing something, not just sitting in jail,” Bush said.

System will force quicker self-evaluation

But for all these potential benefits, the new program is ultimately driven by money – or the lack thereof.

Years of budget cuts have led to staff layoffs and reduced the number of people the state can supervise.

Fifty-eight probation officers supervise 1,635 people on parole or probation in Spokane County. They range from first-time, low-level felons and those convicted of nonviolent crimes, to high-risk sex offenders, gang members and repeat offenders.

Corrections officials, faced with tough decisions about further reductions in supervision, turned to the swift and certain program instead. Probation officers have yet to be trained in the new program despite the fact that it takes effect June 1.

“We don’t know what it’s going to look like,” said Community Corrections Officer Todd Fix, who staffs the Edgecliff SCOPE office in Spokane Valley with Community Corrections Officer Tim Heffernan.

Their daily routine of visiting offenders at the office or in unannounced home visits isn’t expected to change, Fix said. But they’ll no longer spend so much time going over reported violations in hearings – they’ll be carting violators to jail immediately.

That includes a man whom Heffernan decided to keep out of jail recently after he’d admitted to using drugs. The man is on probation for theft convictions that Heffernan said stemmed from a drug addiction.

Before submitting his mandatory drug test, the man told Heffernan he’d relapsed on hydrocodone over the weekend and later admitted to using meth, too.

It was his seventh violation.

Heffernan sat across from him as Garcia, the hearings officer, listened to him detail the man’s recent behavior. It was up to Garcia to decide what to do next.

“What’s it going to take?” Garcia asked the man, pointing to the fact that he has had stable housing and a good job – keys to success – and still went back to using drugs.

His punishment for the positive drug tests? Continuing drug treatment and four days of work crew to be completed within 30 days of the hearing.

Heffernan said the man’s honesty about his drug use swayed the decision to keep the man out of jail.

Instead of lying to cover up his drug use as he’d done for months, he confessed and accepted his punishment. For Heffernan, that’s progress.

“He’s started to make a commitment to himself,” Heffernan said.

Under the new system, he won’t have a choice but to send the man to jail for up to three days. Unless it’s an offender’s fifth violation or higher, a hearing with an outside officer like Garcia won’t take place.

Heffernan is hopeful that will spur felons to change their thinking more quickly.

“The new system will kind of put the onus on them much quicker, which is a good thing,” Heffernan said. “The hardest part of the job is to just get them to break the cycle and care about themselves.”