It is a vicious – and expensive – cycle.
An individual is released from jail and ordered to report to drug treatment or mental health counseling. But then for a variety of preventable reasons – like problems with complicated paperwork or lack of a current driver’s license – he or she misses deadlines and appointments and ends up getting sent back to jail.
This is not only bad for the individual but bad for society, according to those who work in the criminal justice system – from prosecutors to public defenders and probation officers. Everyone wastes time chasing after technicalities that take time away from more important crime prevention issues, they say.
So with hopes of improving this dynamic, a coalition of top Orange County law enforcement officials and public defenders brought a proposal to the county Board of Supervisors.
Based on widely-supported efforts in Kentucky and San Francisco, they recommended a pilot program that would bring social workers into the public defender’s office to help people succeed after serving their sentences.
The four social workers would help Orange County clients navigate complicated systems to obtain drug and alcohol treatment, behavioral health care, and help finding housing and jobs. Their work would be funded by state money stemming from the AB 109 prisoner realignment law.
Results from the Kentucky and San Francisco programs show they have greatly reduced the chances of people re-offending and produced savings that far exceed the programs’ cost.
The proposal before supervisors arrived with recommendations from Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, Probation Chief Steve Sentman, and Public Defender Sharon Petrosino – who all gave their thumbs up back in June.
But when it came up for supervisors’ approval last Tuesday, the effort was shot down by Supervisor Andrew Do, who argued at length against the program.
Do cited concerns like a potential conflict between social workers and probation officers, with social workers learning information that could be “at odds” with what probation officers know. Such disputes could end up in court, he argued.
“In theory I kind of see the idea, but I don’t see in implementation how that’s going to work and how we can avoid the kind of conflict that I just alluded to,” said Do, who used to work as a public defender and later as a prosecutor.
However, those who’ve run the program elsewhere say that concern is unfounded.
“There have never been any problems from our perspective in this area,” said Simin Shamji, the deputy public defender who directs San Francisco’s social worker program, which has been around for over a decade.
“The social workers are agents of the Public Defender and must abide by the attorney-client privilege. As such, our social workers would not be put in the position of having to testify against the interests of their client.”
Do didn’t return a phone message asking if he has any evidence of his concerns materializing in the other jurisdictions that have implemented such social worker programs.
Another concern he expressed was about “enlarging” the public defender’s scope of work – despite the successes elsewhere and likely savings to taxpayers overall.
The county’s probation chief responded to Do by politely, but persistently, argued for the program. “Any assistance to a probation officer to help offenders mitigate potential technical violations, we can use it,” Sentman said at the meeting.
The probation department has an “outstanding” working relationship with the public defender’s office, he said, adding that it “is an obligation of the chief probation officer to at least try” the program, while being aware of Do’s concerns.
Do pushed back.
“I have a real problem” with that, Do said, before suggesting there was a lack of “metrics” to measure the program’s effectiveness.
Yet Do did not mention that Cal State Fullerton researchers have agreed to “measure the reduction in recidivism due to the” program, according to the county staff documents provided to him for that meeting.
While supervisors often talk through their concerns with department heads before proposals come up for a vote, Do apparently took them by surprise.
Sentman’s responses suggested that Do hadn’t brought up his top concerns in the five months since the proposal was recommended by the law enforcement and public defender leaders, instead waiting until the item was up for approval to object to it.
Do ultimately called for sending the proposal back to the law enforcement and public defender officials for an unspecified amount of time before it comes before supervisors again.
Supervisors’ chairwoman Lisa Bartlett gently tried to get Do’s support to sign off on the item.
She suggested approving the program and then having Do work with fellow Supervisor Todd Spitzer on the “logistics” of it, to address his concerns.
Do instead motioned to delay the item, without a specific date for it to return. The other four board members – Spitzer, Bartlett, Shawn Nelson, and Michelle Steel – joined him, apparently deferring to Do’s strong objections.
“You’re absolutely right to point out it could create all kinds of havoc,” Spitzer told Do.
Law enforcement officials, meanwhile, remain supportive of the social worker proposal.
“The program is a great opportunity to pool resources and funding in the effort to decrease recidivism,” said Lt. Mark Stichter, a spokesman for Sheriff Sandra Hutchens.
Kentucky’s program has been so successful that it received an award from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in 2013 for “excellence and innovation in governance and public policy.”
And a study of the San Francisco social worker program found that it produced savings of $1 million from just 66 randomly-selected clients. Orange County’s program would serve as many as 50 clients per month.
“Our clients’ legal problems are often the symptoms of larger social issues — drug addiction, mental illness, homelessness, unemployment,” Shamji told Voice of OC earlier this year. “This not only saves the city and state millions of dollars; it ultimately saves lives.”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.