In a new way to assist clients, the Orange County Public Defender’s Office is planning to hire social workers to help people reenter the community after criminal offenses.
The agency hopes to hire four social workers to assist public defenders in integrating clients back into the community — as a part of California’s broader effort to help offenders lead productive lives and save taxpayer dollars.
A proposal for one year of funding totaling nearly $330,000 is to go to the county Board of Supervisors by autumn.
Last month, officials say the concept was approved by the county’s Community Corrections Partnership — a panel representing multiple agencies that advises on use of state realignment funds.
The money is to come from an unused portion of the county’s allotment of AB 109 funds, which pay for a variety services as state inmates have been shifted to county responsibility.
The proposal “is consistent with the goals of AB 109 to reduce recidivism, lower costs to taxpayer, and to ensure success for clients reintegrating back into the community,” wrote David A. Dworakowski, an assistant public defender in an April letter to the panel.
Among other services, officials note social workers assist clients in securing drug/alcohol services, behavior health care, identify alternative sentencing plans, and help them get jobs.
At public defender agencies in California and across the nation, the hiring of social workers is a growing trend, as regions attempt to cut the monetary and human costs of incarceration.
Studies of jurisdictions — from the city/county of San Francisco to the state of Kentucky — have shown such social worker programs have greatly reduced reincarceration and produced savings.
In a study released last year, consultants found the San Francisco Public Defender’s social worker program produced savings of $1 million involving only 66 patients.
“Our clients’ legal problems are often the symptoms of larger social issues — drug addiction, mental illness, homelessness, unemployment,” said Simin Shamji, a deputy public defender who directs the agency’s program.
“This not only saves the city and state millions of dollars, it ultimately saves lives.”
In San Francisco, deputy public defenders identify a client who might benefit from a social worker assessment, secure the assessment if warranted, and then details are submitted to the judge as part of the sentencing process.
Shamji said the social worker program has been particularly helpful for judges — troubled by the vulnerability or an illness of an accused — in charting the best sentence plan.
“I can’t imagine our public defenders office not having social workers as a part of our legal team,” said Shamji.
“There are so many cases where the public defender attorney doesn’t have the bandwidth to help a client. They can seek the professional advice of the social worker. The judges find it extremely valuable too.”
In particular, she recalled the case of a man over 80 years old with dementia so severe he should have been under the control of a conservator.
He was living in a board and care facility, when he was charged with felony arson for a minor fire.
Once his criminal case was resolved, problems developed about where to place him, she said.
“The biggest obstacle was the home didn’t want to take him back, it wasn’t an unwilling judge or deputy district attorney,” said Shamji, noting there is a shortage of facilities for such individuals.
With the aid of the social work program, a successful appeal was undertaken — since the facility is licensed by the state — and the home agreed to let him return.
Otherwise, Shamji said, the man could have ended up homeless on the street.
The program also has been helpful in crafting equitable resolutions for child support, when the offender has such obligations, Shamji said. Without a solution like this, the offender can face an insurmountable financial burden, thereby potentially limiting what any dependents ultimately receive.
In anticipation of funding, the Orange County Public Defender is seeking an academic institution to study and chart performance.
In San Francisco, a study by the LFA Group examined the randomly selected cases where charges were filed in 2007 and resolved in 2008.
Results showed 98 percent of the defendants saw improvement in their cases — such as serving time in county jail instead of state prison; community-based probation instead of jail; and sometimes shorter sentences.
And they experienced personal and social successes to be ready for full drug/alcohol treatment.
Edward Latessa, a national authority on reentry programs at the University of Cincinnati, said studies show that getting the formerly incarcerated successfully through reentry programs is the best way to reduce recidivism.
A number of San Francisco Bay Area counties have initiated the social worker programs in recent years, along with Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
In San Francisco, Shimji said her agency now has five social workers. The social workers are separate from those that serve drug or homeless courts.
In their presentation to the Orange County panel, public defenders noted the success in Kentucky — which a decade ago was the first jurisdiction nationally to deploy social workers statewide in public advocate offices.
In a report last May to state leaders, Kentucky Public Advocate Robert C. Monahan wrote that there have “substantial returns on program investment” through reducing incarceration costs of 325 clients.
“For every dollar spent on the program, there was $5.66 in return on investment,” he wrote — through an 85 percent reduction in incarcerated days during the prior year.
Rex Dalton can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.