The Legislature tried to give probation departments a financial incentive in 2008 to keep revocations and prison populations down.
However, lawmakers never came up with the money for the incentives. And this past session, lawmakers repealed the incentives program known as the Safe Communities Act (SCA). Even in the absence of the financial part, the program was considered a success by some because of the methods probation departments developed and refined during that time.
There was a nearly 30 percent decrease in the number of probation revocations statewide from July 2007 until June 2010, and a 28 percent decrease in the same period in the number of people whose probation was revoked and were sent to prison, according to a report to the Legislature by the Administrative Office of the Courts. People who ended up in county jail after a revocation also decreased by 39 percent.
The case for evidence-based
The success has come from the use of evidence-based practices, a buzzword for studying reports to find paths to success, a practice used in the medical field. Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch touted the use of the practice during her March 21 State of the Judiciary speech to the Legislature as a way of protecting the community while saving money.
The Maricopa County Adult Probation Department began development of evidence-based practices almost 10 years ago by looking at research on how to change criminal behavior, consulting with those researchers on what works best and then finally implementing a program and getting trained, said Zach Dal Pra, the agency’s deputy chief.
“Our business is about changing behaviors,” Dal Pra said. “When a court puts someone on probation we want to change their behavior so that they get through probation successfully and not come back as a result of committing another crime.”
Maricopa County settled on a model from the National Institute of Corrections, an agency within the U.S. Bureau of Prisons that provides help in training and policy development for federal, local and state corrections agencies.
From that model, Maricopa County developed certain tools to more accurately assess a probationer’s risk to re-offend and their needs, Dal Pra said.
“We didn’t have that 10 to 12 years ago,” Dal Pra said. “Our results have shown that we can reduce recidivism or criminal behavior by doing certain things.”
The Arizona Supreme Court now requires all probation departments across the state to use the methods developed by Maricopa County, Dal Pra said.
‘Prison costs avoided’
Berch issued that order in 2008 at the same time that then-Sen. John Huppenthal introduced HB1476, or the Safe Communities Act, much of which was based on evidence-based practices.
The law allowed people on probation to get time credit for good behavior, and probation departments got a financial incentive to decrease the number of people whose probation was revoked and were returned to prison.
The Administrative Office of the Courts would get an appropriation of 40 percent of “prison costs avoided” to pass along to probation departments for their use in substance abuse treatment, victim services and improving probation.
The money was eliminated from the fiscal year 2010 state budget, the first year it was to be appropriated, and the law was repealed this year.
And although the law didn’t require evidence based practices, it provided an opportunity for the Supreme Court to put it into statewide policy, said Kathy Waters, director of Adult Probation Services for the Administrative Office of the Courts.
“It was a mandate by the chief justice and our performance measures to reduce revocations to prison and in doing that you hopefully reduced the new crimes being committed, which is the benefit you get by doing evidence based practices and supervision,” Waters said.
And while a lot of thought and theory went into the practice, it had to be used in the street, where probation officers deal with thieves, drunken drivers, and violent offenders who have a range of personal issues and addictions.
Proof from the field
Maricopa County probation officer Heather Peckham, who has been working eight years in one of the state’s highest crime areas, area code 85041 in south Phoenix, said there isn’t a drastic difference in supervision in the past and now, except now the techniques and policies have been validated.
One of the big differences is that probation officers used to tell the people they supervised what to do to correct their behavior.
Now, probation is more treatment-based and the officers use methods to get the probationers to think more about their situation and come up with solutions, Peckham said.
Every six months, officers give probationers a series of questions about such things as their employment situation, education, where they are living, mental health and attitude.
They use the information to formulate a plan for the next six months to get the probationers to work on the issues in their lives that have led them to commit crimes.
It also helps probation officers determine who needs more supervision and what kind of treatment they need.
“It’s a client buy-in for them to really change their behavior and lives,” Peckham said. “We’re still holding them accountable for their actions and holding them accountable to the court.”