Fix probation to fix prisons
More resources for probation services in California would prevent many offenders from becoming prisoners.
By Don Meyer 
January 21, 2009 

California's corrections system is in a state of disarray and is in dire need of reform. As The Times described in a Jan. 5 editorial, the state is awaiting a decision from a panel of federal judges that will decide whether to release more than 50,000 criminals into our communities to ease prison overcrowding. Evidently, California is failing to rehabilitate criminals and adding to a cyclical problem facing our prison system that returns more than 70% of released convicts back to state prison.

As probation officers, our job is to ensure that rehabilitated probationers do not become a statistic in our ever-growing prison population. But with more than 300,000 offenders on probation and only 1,400 probation officers to monitor them, we lack the necessary resources to properly supervise the probationers. More important, without the adequate funding for rehabilitation and prevention services, probationers will likely continue their cycle of crime and end up in our state prison system. Failing to provide adequate resources to local probation services will only continue to place pressure on our overcrowded prisons and may result in more crime in our communities.

A large majority of inmates incarcerated in state prisons have been on probation, sometimes several times, before ever setting a toe inside prison. This means that the state fails to provide enough supervision and rehabilitation services to prevent most of its prisoners from escalating the severity of their crimes and being locked up at taxpayers' expense. Worse, the state's failure makes our communities less safe. The problem will only get worse if Sacramento continues to neglect the needs of California's local probation services and does not take a comprehensive approach to fixing our prison system.

If Sacramento properly funded local adult probation services, as it has for our juvenile population, probation departments throughout the state could provide the proper rehabilitation services and supervision to many offenders and prevent them from imprisonment. This would help stem the flow of probationers moving into prison and also have the added benefit of reducing our parole caseloads and creating safer communities for our families.

For example, a decade ago the number of minors in the state's juvenile justice system was more than 10,000; today, it is less than 3,000. This decline in recidivism is directly related to the funding the juvenile justice system receives for rehabilitation and prevention programs. We know this model works, and we know it can provide immediate and long-term relief to the state prison system.

Spending years or months in custody with little or no rehabilitation services does nothing to prepare offenders for their transition into law-abiding communities. The tragedy is that many of these offenders, if given the proper supervision and services, could turn their lives around and end their cycle of criminal activity. The evidence has shown time and time again that the best time to provide these services is immediately after offenders commit their first crime. In practice, intervention is most effective when the offenders are on probation for lower-level offenses.

California must address funding for probation supervision and rehabilitation to effectively deal with its myriad prison issues. Unless the state does so, Californians will always have overcrowded prisons and the attendant budget woes.

Don Meyer, chief probation officer for Yolo County, is president of the Chief Probation Officers of California. 

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