California May Switch to Shorter Probation Terms

Currently, the "vast majority" of misdemeanor probationers are not actively engaged in any probation services or programs

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Gov. Gavin Newsom is proposing to overhaul California's probation system by greatly reducing the time a convict is under supervised release, but increasing rehabilitation programs at the outset of the probationary period, when they are considered the most effective.

He wants to put what he called "an unprecedented amount of money" into a new effort to provide intensive services to those on the lower end of the criminal justice food chain: those serving probation for misdemeanor crimes.

It's driven in part by a recent scourge in which car burglars have become so emboldened in California’s urban areas that some San Francisco Bay Area gang members are traveling hundreds of miles to steal from tourists’ vehicles in Los Angeles. They are the sort of property crimes that no longer merit prison time under the state’s voter-approved criminal justice reforms, but make life miserable for victims.

"This goes directly to the car break-ins, this goes to the petty crime issue, this should be celebrated by the law enforcement community because of the intensity of services we want to provide," Newsom said.

Currently, the "vast majority" of misdemeanor probationers are not actively engaged in any probation services or programs, officials said.

The Democratic governor is seeking $210 million over the next four years to pay for the program in the budget he sent to state lawmakers on Friday.

It also includes his counter-intuitive plan to set a maximum two-year limit on probation terms, down from five for felons and three for those convicted of misdemeanors.

"This will be controversial because it’s a change," Newsom acknowledged. "The data and the evidence and the science bears out, you front-load services — those first 18 months are determinative."

Keeping offenders under supervision much longer "costs money and for small little petty things you throw people back in the system and that cycle of violence perpetuates itself," he argued.

The proposal split law enforcement organizations, with probation officers in support and police chiefs opposed.

The Chief Probation Officers of California said research and recent experience backs Newsom’s contention that concentrating services in the first two years "is the best way to help change their behavior and reduce re-offense."

The proposal builds on a decade-old law that tries to base probation supervision and services on offenders’ risks and needs rather than just considering their crimes. That effort had been concentrated on felons, but the group says it make sense to now extend it to high-risk misdemeanors.

The organization’s president, Brian Richart, cited a Judicial Council of California finding that the effort has kept probation revocations low and thus kept more offenders from returning to prisons or jails. He said providing those services early in a probation term "is the most crucial time to change behavior, reduce re-offense and help address needs."

But California Police Chiefs Association President Ron Lawrence said longer probation terms allow officers to readily search offenders, their homes and vehicles, making it easier to find drugs, weapons, stolen items or other evidence. The supervision also tends to deter criminal behavior, he said.

While the chiefs support increased efforts and funding for rehabilitation programs, "where we really struggle and are opposed to changes are anything that would lessen accountability. Lessening the tail on probation would frankly lessen that accountability," Lawrence said.

Moreover, the proposal comes as California continues to adjust to a decade of easing criminal penalties. The state started sending less serious offenders to county jails instead of state prisons, reduced many drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and allowed earlier parole for most prison inmates.

"We need to wait and see what some of the other reforms do to the crime rates before we do what he’s proposing," Lawrence said.

Organizations representing county sheriffs, prosecutors and rank-and-file officers did not immediately comment on Newsom’s proposal.

But the reform group Californians for Safety and Justice called his plan “a smart investment that improves public safety and saves taxpayer money.” The group noted that 10 times as many offenders are sentenced to probation each year than are sent to prisons or jails, yet the program receives a fraction of state public safety money.

The group backed a 2014 ballot measure that reduced criminal penalties and brought a record $122.5 million in savings this year, primarily from the state reducing its use of private prisons.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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