Probation: A tougher path, voluntarily

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Bluffton News-Banner
August 12, 2014
JESSICA WILLIAMS

If the Wells County Probation Department and Wells Circuit Court Judge Kent Kiracofe get what they want, a new program will be put in place next year to help those most at risk to fail while on probation.

The program would be funded by probation user fees. The first step to letting to plan go forward is the approval of the Wells County Council to use the probation user fees in this manner.

Probation officers and Kiracofe are seeking a different approach to handling some probationers.

“What we’re looking for,” Kiracofe said Monday, “is a way to handle individuals who have some specific needs and how we can address those needs and ultimately reduce recidivism – whether or not they reoffend while on probation.”
Kiracofe said the intensive supervision program would give probationers “incentives to do the right things and disincentives to stop doing the wrong thing.”

The team – Chief Probation Officer Greg Werich, Officer Stephen Pastore and Kiracofe – is asking for the council’s approval to make the department better and the program work, they say.

Werich is bringing to the council a few separate but related appropriations:

  • The continuation of the field officer funding. It was first approved for this year, but the department is still working on ironing out the logistical kinks before filling the position. Its funds will come out of adult user fees. User fee funds are collected by the department for the services it provides; the money is not taxpayer money and does not come from the county’s General Fund.
  • Security for evening hours, which will come out of juvenile user fees. Along with the recent extension of business hours through lunchtime, Werich said the probation department is hoping to “in the near future” offer hours until 6 p.m. or 6:30 p.m. once a week, as opposed to when the courthouse usually closes at 4:30 p.m. Individual officers won’t be working longer hours; their work schedules will fluctuate to accommodate the longer hours.
  • The stipend for an assistant chief probation officer. This will also come out of adult user fees. Werich said the title is similar to that of a chief deputy prosecutor, and the $3,000 stipend will be given to a current officer who would then get additional responsibilities. The request was made for the 2014 funding year, but it wasn’t approved.

They have prepared drafts of the necessary paperwork, including program requirements, a set of court-order-ready addendum rules, and a mission statement.

Werich and Pastore agree that the program would be best served if all of the requests move forward in one piece.
“We are here to do better,” Pastore said. He added that the program will be an enhancement to the department, although it ultimately means more work for the officers.

Specifically, the voluntary program – probationers opt into the heightened level of supervision – guarantees “swift and certain consequences” for violations, inducing greater accountability, Pastore said.

The program will be targeted at certain individuals with a high or moderately high risk to reoffend, based on a state assessment that the court uses.

It would require the probation department – which plans to work within its current staffing resources – to be more judicious in using what’s there, Kiracofe said.

“We want to make sure their supervision, the time we give them, is better allocated,” he said.

There is a statewide trend to do this, and the proposed program is based off a program in Hawaii and a similar manifestation in Allen County.

But not only would the program target higher risk probationers, it would be for those with substance-abuse backgrounds. However, the offenders may or may not have committed a drug crime.

“It might be someone who has committed a burglary because they are stealing things to fuel their drug addiction,” Kiracofe said.

Or it could also be someone who shows signs of abuse and might relapse and then get their time revoked, he added.

They’ve used evidence-based practices that have been proven to be effective – and that reinforce acceptable social behavior.

Pastore said they started looking at this program last year and had an intern collect data. In the 40 cases between 2011 and 2013 that were examined, all had a note attached that substance abuse was a part of the probationers’ past or present, but less than half were on probation due to a drug charge.

Of those 40 cases, less than 25 percent served six months of probation without a violation. In the high risk offenders who have revocations, more than half of those had all of their time revoked.

Pastore said currently, the state requirements for a high-risk offender is that the probation officer see the probationer twice a month and conduct home visits every 90 days. These are the people who are coming off of sentences in prison or jail.

“You’ve got some pretty good odds, if you want to keep operating like you were, to get away with that for quite some time,” he said. “We’ll probably catch them eventually, they’ll probably slip up, but how long do we let that go in the community unaddressed?”

An intensive supervision program lets the participants know their behavior is not going unnoticed, good or bad, and that they aren’t being given up on, he added.

“The sanctions will become increasingly worse as we go through and eventually the judge may say, ‘This has been enough. We’ve tried on you, you’re not working out. You’re not doing it.’ Then we may go that revocation route like we would have now,” Pastore said. “But this gives us an opportunity to try to address that while really serving our community better.”

Right now, due to “how the justice system works,” there is a time lag in dealing out the consequences, Kiracofe said.
But this program would encourage honesty, which should speed up the process.

“The idea is that you want them to become more honest with their probation officer about what’s going on,” Kiracofe said.
If, for example, the probationer would meet with  his officer Thursday and admit he used drugs the day before, he would go to jail Friday and be released Monday.

When Pastore and Werich presented their request to the council last week, Pastore was asked if this would clog the justice system even more than it already was. Pastore stressed the meetings would ideally last only a few minutes.

The hope for the program, Pastore added, is that the participants will admit on the spot to the violation and be dealt a consequence.

“We don’t want to interrupt the positive things going on,” Kiracofe said, such as getting them fired from a job that was hard to come by in the first place.
“It doesn’t mean that’s a free pass and that their misbehavior will be tolerated for long periods of time. It won’t be. They have to show some signs that they’re making recovery and wanting to make some changes,” Kiracofe said.

Participants would also be held to a higher set of rules. During the first phase, for example, they’d meet with an officer once a week, get drug tested six times a month, and be subject to twice-a-month home visitations.

In Kiracofe’s mind, one of the strongest components to the program is the daily check-ins.

“I think everyone operates under the assumption that … people act just like they do,” he said.

The average offender isn’t employed, he’s transient, and he might “lack a lot of the foundations that the average citizen has,” he added.

Some offenders don’t have jobs or responsibilities that get them out of bed in the morning. This program would require them to call in every day by a certain time, much like that of the responsibility of going to work.

Then they’d go to their job, or if they are unemployed, they might be required to do community service and look for a job.
“The idea is to get them to do these pro-social behaviors,” Kiracofe said, “to have a reason to get up every morning, to have obligations, to have responsibilities that over time hopefully change their behavior for the better.”

About Greg Werich

Gregory E. Werich, BA, MPA. Certified Indiana probation officer since 1987 and appointed Wells County chief probation officer in 1997. Certified EPICS practitioner, PRT scribe, and IJC Case Planning trainer. Past POPAI treasurer, and chair of Chief Executive Committee. POAB member and co-chair of the POAB Education Committee. View all posts by Greg Werich →