Sacramento County probation officers have highest caseload in state
04/10/2013 12:00 AM
10/24/2013 8:17 AM
Alan Rimington's history of gang activity shows in the ink that covers his body, right down to the threat marked over his eyes.
"Your Next," his grammatically incorrect eyelid tattoos warn.
Rimington, 34, is on probation for possession of methamphetamine, one in a long list of drug charges dating back to when he was 19. Rimington said he's staying out of trouble now, in part because the Sacramento County Probation Department makes periodic visits to his home.
"I never know when they're going to show up – that keeps me in line," he said.
Rimington is an exception. About 92 percent of Sacramento County's 22,000 probationers go unsupervised, meaning they don't receive drug tests, random searches or services intended to help them break free from criminal backgrounds.
The lack of supervision helps explain why probationers are more likely to re-offend in Sacramento County than in other places in California, county officials say.
Among California's eight largest counties, Sacramento County has the most probationers per officer, according to a Bee analysis of figures provided by the counties.
"Probationers have already demonstrated they can offend, and without the proper guidance and supervision, it's very likely they will re-offend," said Cecil Canton, a criminal justice professor at California State University, Sacramento.
The Probation Department has about 620 employees and a budget of $115 million, down from 888 employees and a $127 million budget five years ago. Roughly half of the department's budget is funded by federal and state sources.
The cuts have left Sacramento County with 124 probationers per officer, far more than Los Angeles County, which has the second-highest rate with 82 probationers per officer.
Those figures don't reflect the actual number of probationers each officer monitors – workloads are lower because most probationers go unsupervised. But the data reflect how understaffed Sacramento County is compared with other jurisdictions.
Sacramento County's low rate of supervision is the result of deep budget cuts by the Board of Supervisors, which has prioritized funding for sheriff's deputies and other programs besides probation.
More cuts are expected this year with the state planning to reduce funding to Sacramento County probation by $5 million, or 4 percent of its budget.
Probationers back in jail
Last year, 6.2 percent of Sacramento County probationers were sentenced to jail or prison for a new offense, according to figures from the California Administrative Office of the Courts. That was the second-highest rate among the state's eight largest counties, trailing only San Bernardino County with 7.9 percent.
In a study published in January, the Council of State Governments Justice Center found the city of Sacramento had a higher percentage of crime by parolees and probationers – 30 percent from 2008 to mid-2011 – than the three other cities in the study: Los Angeles, Redlands and San Francisco.
Don Meyer, who recently retired as the county's chief probation officer to take a similar job in Los Angeles, has repeatedly warned county supervisors about the dangers of cutting probation officers.
"Probation shouldn't be the stepchild or orphan of law enforcement, but it is," Meyer said. "Nobody thinks supervision is important, but it is. If we intervene in people's lives, we can make a difference."
In a budget hearing before supervisors one year, Meyer showed newspaper headlines about high-profile murders and other crimes he said unsupervised probationers committed.
In one crime, two bystanders were killed in a December 2010 shootout at a Stockton Boulevard barbershop. The shooters killed Marvion Dashawn Barksdale, 20, and Monique Nelson, 30, who used her body to shield her 2-year-old son from flying bullets.
In another case cited by Meyer, a 15-year-old boy was shot to death in Sacramento on New Year's Eve 2010.
Other local officials agree that probation cuts have weakened Sacramento County's criminal justice system. Laurie Earl, presiding judge in Sacramento Superior Court, and Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully said probation cuts result in more re-offenders.
"You can't expect successful completion of probation when no one is looking over your shoulder," Scully said.
The Probation Department is unable to supervise 34 percent of the 5,000 probationers considered at high risk to re-offend, said acting Chief Probation Officer Suzanne Collins. That includes some active gang members, she said.
The county performs a risk assessment on each probationer to help determine if there should be active supervision. Among factors considered are criminal history, employment and history of drug abuse.
Supervision alone won't keep probationers in line, Collins said. They must also receive services to change the way they think and help find employment, among other things, she said.
Day centers may be cut
A few years ago, the county used state funding to start its first rehabilitation program specifically for probationers – adult day reporting centers, where offenders meet with probation officers and receive counseling, among other services. The cognitive behavioral therapy they receive is intended to change destructive ways of thinking.
Christopher John Smith is a 50-year-old probationer who has had regular brushes with the law in the last half of his life. He blames the methamphetamine he has abused since he was a teenager.
Drug abuse is considered highly common among probationers, and drug charges are the most common offense among Sacramento County probationers who re-offend, statistics show.
Smith said he's better prepared to kick his drug habit since he recently graduated from the adult day reporting center.
"It changed my way of thinking," he said. "I learned if I continued with my old ways of thinking, I'll go back to prison."
The county has three day reporting centers, but less than 1 percent of probationers have completed training at them. Collins said the department can't afford to provide classes to more probationers.
In recent years, state funds helped the Probation Department offset the loss of county funds. But Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget for the coming fiscal year would cut revenue for probation departments across the state. Sacramento County would lose $5.3 million, or about half of its revenue from that source.
The county may have to close two of its three day reporting centers if state cuts are approved, Collins said.
Supervisors say probation cuts are the result of a loss of revenue overall as the county's discretionary revenue has dropped 24 percent since 2008.
But supervisors have cut deeper into probation than other programs, reducing its county appropriation 30 percent. By comparison, the sheriff has received an 8 percent cut in general funds during that time.
Board Chairwoman Susan Peters defends the budget decisions.
"The police are the front line, and most of my constituents want them out there arresting the bad guys," she said.
But Supervisor Phil Serna said he wonders whether cuts to probation have resulted in more expensive costs for the sheriff, such as jail expenses. The county needs to provide more money to probation, he said.
"I've been pretty vocal about the need to fund probation to the level we can," he said.
County probation departments in 2011 began supervising offenders released from state prisons who previously were watched by state parole officers. But so far Sacramento County probation officials don't blame the realignment shift for their problems.
Sacramento County places all of the prison-released offenders under active supervision, Collins said. They are generally considered more dangerous than the probationers the county has historically watched.
Though the Probation Department has few resources, Collins said it is able to supervise all prison-released offenders because the county uses about $8 million in annual state funds for that purpose. As of January, Sacramento County supervised about 1,700 such individuals.
Call The Bee's Brad Branan, (916) 321-1065. Follow him on Twitter @bradb_at_sacbee.
Editor's Choice Videos
Join the Discussion
Merced Sun-Star is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.