January 9, 2012

The Inner Workings of Private Probation

Print More

About a month ago, a probation supervisor got an unsettling call.

You don’t have to supervise me anymore, the man said, and you can order my death certificate.

It’s not every day a probation supervisor at Oklahoma Courts Services intervenes in a client attempting suicide.

But that day, a quick call to police resulted in an emergency room visit that saved the man’s life.

This type of situation doesn’t happen every day or even every week, but it is an example of the constantly changing dynamic between a probation supervisor and the offender.

“If there is no contact and if there is no relationship between the supervisor and the offender, then there is no way we are going to be able to affect change,” said Julia Curry, Oklahoma Court Services founder and director, whose company offers municipal and district courts programs for misdemeanor and felony offenders before and after sentencing.

But there is growing evidence that, as a whole, Oklahoma isn’t supervising enough offenders and that the supervision in place isn’t working effectively, said John Estus, spokesman for House Speaker Kris Steele.

“The question about supervision has to be bigger than just one form,” Estus said. “You have to look at everything and find out what’s working and what’s not. You don’t want one form of supervision to drag down another if that one form isn’t doing well.”

At least one in 92 adult Oklahomans are under state correctional probation or parole, according to the Pew Center on the States, a nonpartisan think tank that studies public policy.

Thousands more are on probation either through a private entity or a district attorney’s office. They all pay, usually $40 a month, to be supervised, but how much they’re supervised, who supervises them and how success is defined differs greatly.

Those disparities led a group of lawmakers and criminal justice experts in Oklahoma to research court-mandated supervision and determine how the state should move forward.

The group will release policy recommendations to the Legislature on Jan. 11.

Traditionally, since the late 1960s, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections supervised felony offenders. That changed in the mid-2000s when the Legislature authorized district attorneys to supervise any offender not sent to DOC’s custody.

The DOC probation and parole office supervises 21,170 offenders on probation and another 3,184 offenders on parole at a cost of $2.81 per day, or about $87 per month.

By comparison, it costs $40.43 per day to house an offender at a minimum security facility. The DAs and private supervision companies charge offenders $40 per month, or $1.29 a day.

In fiscal year 2012, district attorneys are expected to generate about $14 million in revenue — almost 20 percent of their budget — by supervising an estimated 27,600 people on misdemeanor cases and about 10,500 on felony cases.

The creation of DA supervision placed Oklahoma Court Services and any other private supervision company in direct competition with district attorneys. Both depend on that $40 per offender per month to survive.

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative, however, did not look extensively at private supervision programs when researching Oklahoma’s criminal justice system, said criminal justice senior policy analyst Robert Coombs.

“Private supervision isn’t inherently better or worse,” Coombs said. “It just matters who’s doing it and what kind of standards you put in place.”

The state could hold the private providers to certain standards by including those standards in their contracts, Coombs said.

Curry founded Oklahoma Courts Services in 2000 because she saw a need for supervision, primarily for low-level misdemeanor offenders.

Curry doesn’t have any control over whether someone is placed in Oklahoma Court Services’ programs. Curry argues this holds her company accountable for the services it provides.

“We save the state money because the bulk of our programs don’t cost the state anything, and we have a vested interest of providing the court a superior service because the court isn’t required to use us, so we must do a good job, or we don’t have folks,” Curry said.

After working 40 years in the criminal justice system, Bill Yeager has developed an encyclopedic knowledge of prison and corrections in Oklahoma.

He saw immense change in corrections over the years, like when local farmers served as correctional officers and inmates greeted them with keys and a facility tour.

Yeager, now retired from DOC after serving as warden for multiple facilities, often cites the professionalism that he feels exists with DOC’s present-day probation and parole officers.

With every offender, DOC probation officers use evidence-based procedures to figure out what someone needs — substance abuse treatment, anger management, a GED — and also how likely they are to reoffend if those needs aren’t met. From there, probation officers create an individualized program for the offender.

The lack of mandated standards for supervision outside of DOC could result in dangerous consequences, Yeager said.

“If they know that what they do or will do may hurt people and that they may be causing more harm than good, then I would question their morale authority to be involved in the whole process,” Yeager said. “It’s like, wait a minute — you’re throwing out so many years of research just to make $40 a month and you know you’re going to know or should know you’re going to make people worse? Well, if you do a little Google search, you’ll know.”

Some of the lack of structure among supervision programs comes from the fact that every community has different resources available to its court system, said Suzanne McClain Atwood, the District Attorneys Council executive director.

This leaves district attorneys, private supervision companies and state probation officers at the mercy of what’s available — for example, 63 of Oklahoma’s 77 counties have drug courts. Some have mental health courts. Two have veteran court dockets. Some have programs that address domestic violence. Substance abuse treatment is a short walk for some and a long drive for others.

This, Atwood says, is one more reason why entities providing supervision should work together.

With an anticipated $150 million less to spend in Oklahoma’s next state budget and a reluctance from lawmakers to increase taxes, Atwood asks what lawmakers will likely mull over in the next session.

“Do you want taxpayers to fund the criminal justice system, or do you want to fund the justice system by criminal offenders who are responsible for the reason the system exists? In my opinion, there has to be a balance.”

Reporter Jaclyn Cosgrove can be reached via e-mail or on Twitter at@jaclyncosgrove.