County's Probation Cuts Would Leave Hundreds Unsupervised

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(Sacramento, CA)
Thursday, February 5, 2009

Sacramento County has a $40 million mid-year budget deficit on its hands, and on Tuesday, supervisors are expected to approve massive layoffs in two departments: probation and health and human services.  Today, we’re looking at what those cuts will mean for the probation department, and it’s not a pretty picture.  For example, adults on probation for domestic violence offenses will go without in-person supervision. 
In the Del Paso Heights neighborhood of north Sacramento, two deputy probation officers are checking in on a middle-aged woman, on probation for domestic violence. At first, there’s no one around but a couple of dogs, held in by the locked black metal fence that surrounds the property.  Eventually, though, the woman comes out – turns out she was just asleep. 
Rodriguez: “Hello?”
Woman: “I’ve seen her before, hi.”
Rodriguez: “How’s it going?  Is this your new house?”
Woman: “Yeah, can I – find the key?  Or are you gonna jump?  You can squeeze in here…”
Rodriguez: “You know what, we’ll jump.”
Woman: “Okay, c’mon.” 
The officers ask the woman some questions and go into the house.  There, they find signs of drug use and arrest her.  Supervising deputy probation officer Ed Horning, who’s along for the ride, says this crucial law enforcement tool is about to disappear. 
Horning: “Pretty much everything we’re doing today will be non-existent if things unfold the way I’m told they’re going to unfold.” 
Horning says his division will lose 50 positions.  That means field officers will be pulled off the streets and reassigned to courts or institutions – which means, Horning says 1,500 domestic violence probationers will go unsupervised. 
Horning: “So we won’t be knocking on doors, we won’t be talking to victims, we won’t be fielding phone calls, we won’t be responding to situations that need to be responded to, we won’t be drug testing, we won’t be providing courts timely reports – everything.” 
The probation department says the gang unit and adult drug court unit will likely face the same fate, though juvenile programs will remain in existence.  The county’s top administrators declined comment on the probation cuts.  But they’ve previously said the cuts are necessary because sales tax revenues are down sharply.  As for other counties around the state … 
Meyer: “Everybody’s suffered, and they’ve had their revenues reduced in most counties.  It looks to be worse next year for almost every department.” 
So says Don Meyer of Yolo County, who’s the president of a statewide association of chief probation officers.  He says he hasn’t heard of other counties going as far as Sacramento yet – but that could change soon.  And what’s that mean to regular law-abiding taxpayers? 
Meyer: “Let’s say somebody’s a drug user.  Their behavior will escalate.  They’ll commit more crimes, to feed their drug or alcohol habits.  They’ll break into your house, take your car.  That means more victims, more crimes committed.” 

Rodriguez: “Okay, I’m just gonna take a look around real quick, okay?”
Another woman: “Okay.”
Rodriguez: “Just check your bathroom and all that.” 
Back in the field, deputy probation officer Martha Rodriguez and her partner, Wayne Fong, say the cuts to probation will eliminate the in-person visits and leave hundreds of convicted felons unsupervised. 
Rodriguez: “They can come in the office and present themselves a certain way, and everything’s going great.  And they’re not going to tell you that hey, I’m punching holes all over my walls and threatening the victim.  You go into a home, you see holes everywhere, you’re like, hey, what’s been going on?”
Fong: “Smell the drugs.”
Rodriguez: “Yeah.”
Fong: “So, you can take away the eyes and ears, and you have nothing left except to rely on what they tell us.” 
Sacramento County administrators will make their final recommendations Friday, ahead of Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting.  If approved, the layoffs will begin on March 1st – and that’s when probation officers will leave the field.  So when Rodriguez tells one of her case subjects … 
Rodriguez: “Okay, I will see you next month, then.” 
… she knows in reality, she probably won’t.


CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct the name of Don Meyer, whom we incorrectly identified as "Dan."  We regret the error.