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Jailhouse Rock

By Bruce Robinson

WHAT WE FOCUS ON these days are sex and violence," says Paul Aguilera. "That's all we can do anymore." The director of adult probation for Sonoma County, Aguilera has watched the caseloads of his officers swell dramatically in recent years, from about 30 cases per officer in 1981 to 180 or more today. "We even have some caseloads that border on 300."

With such massive numbers of people to administer, the amount of personal supervision the probation officers are able to provide has inevitably declined. "The larger the caseload, the more violations you're going to have" among those cases, Aguilera explains, even if many of them are minor or technical violations. "Every violation requires three reports, so you're more office-bound than ever before."

Meanwhile, the Sonoma County Probation Department's budget, now about $18 million a year, has remained "pretty flat" in recent years, Aguilera says. In 1993, "we lost four and a half officers because of the tight budget, and no, we haven't gotten them back."

So the department has made choices--for instance, the officers no longer actively supervise felony DUI cases--and concentrated its efforts where the need is seen as greatest. "San Diego has 18,000 felons and actively supervises 3,000 of them," giving full attention only to violent and sexual offenders, Aguilera says. "That appears to be the model that's being taken on more and more all over the state."

Contrary to what one might expect, the burgeoning workload shouldered by the Probation Department is not due to California's "three strikes" law, at least not yet. "We're still waiting for that fallout," Chief Probation Officer Bob Gillen says. So far, "the impact has more to do with the increase in felonies that are being charged and processed by the courts, and the ultimate placing of those felons on probation."

"There's nobody here who disagrees with the concept of 'three strikes' for violent offenders," Aguilera adds. In fact, he says, many take it a step further and support "one strike for sex crimes."

But the pace is now being set by prosecutors, Gillen notes, as the law leaves little flexibility for other players in the judicial process. "The decision-making of the courts is limited, and that probably has more impact on what's happening [to the Probation Department] than anything else," he observes. "You just don't have the discretion of the judge playing a role with these individuals. There is a sentencing that is set in law, and whether it fits or not, that's what has to be followed."

And the caseload in local courts has been growing rapidly, too. According to Greg Abel, executive officer for Sonoma County courts, "We had two years of 30 percent increases in felony filings" in 1994 and 1995. Even though the filings dropped off by 20 percent in 1996, that is still a net increase of 40 percent over three years.

At the same time, the persistent crowding in the Sonoma County jail has forced implementation of various forms of alternative sentencing, such as work release, home confinement, and electronic monitoring, all of which place additional demands on probation officers. "They're getting squeezed pretty hard in a number of areas," Abel says. "It sort of has an exponential impact on them."

Further, Abel notes, the cases are more serious than ever before. "We had a huge increase in the number of assaults, both felony and misdemeanor. And we've had a lot of increase in the domestic violence filings."

In response, the Probation Department has created "one of the first domestic violence units in the country," Aguilera says. "We're very committed to this area," which he characterizes as "an overlooked part of crime."

The new emphasis is well justified, he continues, because of the ripple effect domestic violence has throughout our society. "Kids in domestic violence households are 65 percent more likely to be abused, physically, sexually, or emotionally," Aguilera elaborates. "When these children grow up in a house where violence is the norm, they take it not only into their next home, but into society. Because that's the only thing they know that works."

Established last February, the domestic violence unit was initially set up with 125 cases for each of the officers involved. Within six months, that number had grown to 175 cases each. "These officers ought to be working 40 cases, at best 60 or 75," Aguilera sighs. The national standard, he adds, is 50. These officers not only monitor the defendants, "to make sure they are not being a danger to victims and provide a line of communication for them," but also help set up protection plans for the victims and encourage the clients "to get into counseling, to become aware of the dynamics of domestic violence," Aguilera says.

ANOTHER SOURCE of frustration is drug offenders. "Every dollar spent on drug treatment saves $7 in future costs," Aguilera says, "yet we're spending all this money building prisons" while cutting treatment programs.

He cites a study produced by the state that found that in 1991-92, California reaped $1.5 billion in savings from the $209 million spent on drug treatment efforts. "We've proven over and over again that way works," Aguilera says. "The problem is that a lot of that stuff is political."

And in the current political and economic climate, "treatment on demand just isn't there," he says. "A lot of our clients sit in jail 12 months or more waiting to get into a treatment program."

Not only does that compound jail-crowding concerns, but the delay also tends to dilute the effectiveness of the programs, as someone who has already served a major part of his or her sentence incarcerated tends to be far less motivated to make a good-faith effort in a drug rehab program.

There are just 155 residential drug treatment "slots" available at any one time in Sonoma County, which are "pretty much full all the time," confirms Geoff Wood of the county's Alcohol, Drug, and Tobacco Services, while the programs get more than 300 referrals a year. "There are always more [referrals] than there are slots available," he says.

Despite all these frustrations, Aguilera insists that morale in the department is holding strong. "You do what you can with the resources you have," he shrugs. "We are critical in the lives of people. Every client we see off drugs, every person we teach to use non-violence, that's a success."

The probation officers even mounted their own toy drive again this Christmas, playing Santa to some 450 kids in their client families. "We don't believe the child should go without because the parents are in trouble," Aguilera smiles.

"We're incurable do-gooders here."

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From the January 9-15, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent

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© 1997 Metrosa, Inc.

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