DFO Community Corrections explores new probation model



The three-county probation system has been asked by the National Institute of Corrections, which is part of the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons, to determine the feasibility of adopting a probation model called dosage probation.

“The theory of dosage, it’s not time-based, it’s programming-based,” said James Johnson, community services supervisor for DFO Community Corrections. “You complete the prescribed amount of programming, and once you meet a specific amount of hours, then you are eligible for discharge of probation. It’s really the amount of programs, homework, interventions that you participate in.”

Traditional probation, or how people traditionally think of probation, is time-based. Somebody may be convicted of a certain offense and when they go to be sentenced, they are sentenced to a set amount of time of probation, Johnson said.

During the next year, DFO Community Corrections, as well as stakeholders throughout the criminal justice system, will meet to explore the feasibility of dosage probation in the three counties as well as create a model for how it would work here.

There are three existing dosage probation programs, Milwaukee County in Wisconsin, Napa County in California and Washington County in Minnesota. Still in its early years, it is too soon for research on whether the program has actually reduced the rate at which people reoffend. Even so, Terry Thomas, director of Washington County Community Corrections, said he is a firm believer in the program.

“When people get in the corrections system, they have a judge telling them what to do. They have probation officers reinforcing those orders so there is a lot of control in that,” Thomas said. ”We have a lot of people that really get into this program and really get motivated and want to do well and they want to get off probation.”

The program, Thomas said, gives people the opportunity to be internally motivated to change their behavior.

One of three programs in the nation

The program began in Washington County on Jan. 1, 2016, but individuals who were sentenced around July 2015 were eligible to get involved. Since the Washington County program began, 392 people have been placed on dosage probation. Of that group, 99 have been successfully discharged early from probation, saving community corrections 315 years of supervision.

A total of 136 people were unsuccessful on the program, but Thomas said he doesn’t classify those all as failures as they include people who’ve moved out of the county or those who may have had less serious charges and completed their sentences before finishing the program. Among that number, though, there are people who have had their probation revoked as well as those who refuse to participate in programming.

“We really believe in dosage probation,” Thomas said. “I think it is an effective intervention. I think it really provides individuals intrinsic motivation to change a behavior and work their way out of the system, for good.”

It isn’t just community corrections that has to agree to the program. Stakeholders across the criminal justice system must buy in.

Chief judge of the 3rd Judicial District Jodi Williamson said she was “fascinated” with the program after hearing a presentation on it from Washington County Community Corrections.

“When Washington County was going through their data, the outcomes were so much better than traditional probation for certain people. I was interested in that,” Williamson said. “I think it is an interesting concept to pursue. I think the outcomes are good for the right population, and I think it’s a good idea.”

Williamson said she sees the program addressing the individual needs of the person on probation rather than a one-size-fits-all probation services. That individualization is something that Meg Mitchell, chief public defender of the 3rd District Public Defenders, said could benefit clients her office services.

“This is something that public defenders have done for years, where we understand that what really matters is whole-centered care, where we are actually looking at the individual needs of someone and we are basing what kinds of services we are tying on their probation to that individual risk and need level,” Mitchell said.

The program has the possibility to turn a probation merry-go-round – where you are on probation for a number of years no matter your level of engagement – into an escalator, where you can take steps to move to the next level, Mitchell said.

Fillmore County Attorney Brett Corson is on the steering committee for DFO’s dosage probation exploration. He said he is optimistic about the program but wants to know that the program works.

“I want to be open-minded to this, but I also want to look at it closely to make sure it is going to accomplish all those things we want it to,” he said.

One challenge Dodge and Fillmore counties may face in instituting the program would be access to resources for clients who live in a more rural setting. Dosage probation requires access to cognitive-based programming and getting transportation to those programs isn’t always easy. DFO Community Corrections already offers these types of programs, but partnering with outside providers will be necessary.

Dosage model history

The dosage probation model originated in 2011 and was conceived by the Center for Effective Public Policy while working in Milwaukee on a project sponsored by the National Institute of Corrections.

Individuals on dosage probation do 100, 200 or 300 hours of programming depending on their risk level. It takes about a year to do 100 hours.

The model’s three cornerstones are risk, need and responsivity.

“Research demonstrates that although offenders typically have many needs, some of them result in criminal behavior but others do not,” researchers wrote in the NIC Dosage Probation paper.

A tool to reduce risk

The probation model complements the work that DFO Community Corrections has been doing as part of its DFO 2020 effort, which focuses on cognitive interventions and making probationer interactions with agents meaningful.

“We have been focusing a lot of efforts on making those interactions purposeful and actually a tool to reduce that person’s risk,” Johnson said.

With dosage probation, Johnson said clients are empowered and incentivized to engage in programming.

“What really excites us is that we think this will really increase client engagement and as a result, then, it will reduce recidivism — fewer clients that we serve committing new offenses after,” said Travis W. Gransee, director of DFO Community Corrections.

In 2019, DFO Community Corrections served 5,715 people. At any given time, DFO has about 3,000 people and only a small subset of that population would be eligible for dosage probation, according to Gransee. An estimated 378 people of the 5,715 people served in 2019 would have been eligible to participate in dosage probation, Gransee said.

“Given our volume that might not seem like a lot, but to us that is a significant number worthy of us continuing to explore this model,” he said.

Gransee said implementing the program likely won’t have an impact on the budget and knows that if the three counties were to implement the dosage model, it would have to be done within the existing budget.

“It’s really a practice shift but not a resource shift,” he said. ”I’ll never say it will reduce the number of probation officers we have because they are all overworked as it stands right now, but if we could see shortened sentences as a result of participation in programming and free up staff’s time to do the impactful interventions, everybody is better off.”

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