Thinking outside the cell
The idea, part of a new state initiative, isn't to let criminals off the hook by giving them lesser sentences, said Corrections Director Ted Smietana; it's to give them sentences that both impose an appropriate sanction for their crimes, and deter them from committing more crimes in the future.
Smietana said the county identifies which people are statistically most likely to be diverted from future criminal behavior through treatment programs, and directs them into those programs.
“Probation costs about $9 per day,” Smietana said. “Prison costs about $90.”
Keeping the community safe, he said, still is the first priority; no violent offenders are eligible for the program.
The county receives about $170,000 a year to fund the program, and Yamhill is one of just two Oregon counties, including Marion, that are operating the program successfully.
Smietana recently told county commissioners that Yamhill County has exceeded its goals for the first year.
The state program folds neatly into a national initiative the county also piloted for the state. The Evidence Based Decision Making Initiative, sponsored by the National Institute of Corrections, selected seven jurisdictions in the country in 2010 to test an effort to reduce criminal recidivism by using research-proven methods.
Historically, Smietana acknowledged, the corrections system tended to continue practices because they were traditional, rather than examining them to see whether they were working.
But studies found that some of those traditional methods, such as electronic monitoring and intensive supervision, did nothing to change criminal behavior.
The Institute of Corrections theorized that it would be more effective to target and focus on those people most likely to respond to treatment. Specifically, classes are intended to change how habitual criminals think, and teach them how to change their behavior.
In the past several decades, Smietana said, the corrections systems tried treating criminal behavior as a medical issue by addressing problems of substance abuse, anger management and domestic violence. Those are important, he said, but they're not enough, by themselves, to change people's inclination to commit crime.
“You've got to get into their heads,” he said.
Research showed that some hardened career criminals likely would not respond to treatment, while very low-risk offenders probably would change behavior on their own. That left a wide middle ground of people who habitually commit crimes for a variety of reasons, but who can be taught skills and habits that make it easier and more desirable for them to avoid criminal behavior.
In 2010, Yamhill County applied for and received a grant to focus on redesigning its justice system to help reduce the number of repeat crimes. It focused on sentencing, pre-trial services, correctional treatment and mental health.
Corrections officials were sufficiently pleased with the outcome to continue working on the goals after the grant ended in December.
Meanwhile, Oregon had been studying ways to control ever-increasing prison costs. In 2012, the state Commission on Public Safety issued a report to Governor John Kitzhaber that led to the state Reinvestment Initiative. It called for reducing prison costs by 6 percent, and reinvesting the money locally.
That program, however, did not set specific goals for counties.
Yamhill County set its own goal: reduce prison time by 6 percent in the first year. That came to 285 months of imposed prison time in a year, Smietana said, based on 2012 data showing that local circuit courts had imposed 4,739 prison months that year. As of late August, the program had reduced imposed prison time by a bit more than 370 months, or nearly 8 percent, he said.
Yamhill County tackled the project by using processes created during the earlier national initiative.
The county already was giving convicted criminals a battery of tests to determine how best to address issues that led to their convictions. All people on probation are given access to the treatment classes.
Now, however, the county decided to begin giving those tests to certain defendants before they were sentenced.
When an assessment shows someone is likely to respond well to the classes, and where the judge agrees that prison is not necessarily the best option for other reasons, that person can be diverted to probation.
The progam saves money on housing prisoners, and reduces the likelihood that a criminal might learn worse habits and behaviors in prison, coming out at higher risk of harming the community in the future.
The county public safety committee, which includes members from the prosecutors' office, judges, corrections officers, mental health specialists and members of the public, developed a framework for the program.
Now, defendants who meet program criteria are referred to the corrections department for assessment after they are convicted, but before sentencing.
Program Manager Brian Rucker also reviews each defendant's criminal history and history of interaction with the Corrections Department, and writes a report to the court, to be used in sentencing.
In some cases, Rucker said, when someone has had chance after chance to succeed but keeps returning to the system, he's likely to recommend prison time. When the assessment shows that the person likely will respond to treatment, Rucker recomments either no prison or reduced prison time.
Judges are not bound to accept Rucker's recommendation.
“It's up to the court to decide what is the most just sentence,” Smietana said. “We're just looking at, 'can we manage this person?' That's why we don't expect the court to always agree with us. I wouldn't consider it a good thing if they did.”
He said judges have agreed with the recommendations about 85 percent of the time.
Rucker said the county has completed about 50 of the presentencing reports. It has taken some time to get program procedures into place so that eligible defendants routinely are referred to his office, and it can take months for each case to work its way through the legal system.
The county will be tracking data over the next few years to see how the program is working.