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Decision Points: Sentencing with community supervision in mind

January 7, 2016

As our name says, the concept of community is central to our supervision practices at the Department of Community Justice (DCJ) in Multnomah County, Oregon, which handles probation and parole as well as pretrial supervision in Portland and surrounding areas. We are consistently seeking out research and best practices that provide guidance on how to best supervise those individuals placed on probation and post-prison supervision, such as the use of structured sanctions as a way to hold offenders accountable. This commitment to keeping individuals in their home communities extends as well to those who are awaiting sentencing and disposition through our Pretrial Services Program (PSP).

The majority of jurisdictions in the U.S. rely on bond schedules, which specifies monetary amounts accused persons must pay to be released pretrial, based on the charges they face. In Multnomah County, 61% of people booked into jail are awaiting trial and have not yet been charged with a crime. Many defendants on low-level charges who cannot afford bail plead guilty through negotiations before trial, solely in order to be released from jail. The creation of pretrial diversion options for such cases can have a profound effect on case disposition and sentencing. In Oregon, pretrial services were created in 1973 in conjunction with the abolishment of the commercial bail bond system. It was a joint effort among judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement officers, and correctional officers—and the continued collaboration of all these stakeholders has been the key to the program’s success.

The primary mission of PSP is to evaluate the risk of releasing defendants prior to trial, supervise defendants in the community, and ensure that defendants attend court hearings. PSP supervision allows defendants an opportunity to remain employed or in school, continue to receive medical services (such as drug, alcohol, or mental health treatment), and stay connected to their community pending resolution of their court cases. In 2014, 86% of those receiving PSP supervision showed up for their court dates, demonstrating that pretrial supervision can be a successful pretrial alternative to jail detention.

In addition to pretrial supervision, Multnomah County’s DCJ contributes to the effective management of jail beds through the use of structured sanctions. Research has consistently demonstrated that the delivery of swift and certain sanctions supports reduced recidivism. Oregon established a structured sanctions program in 1993 through a law giving probation/parole officers (PPO’s) the authority to apply immediate consequences to offenders on probation when they violate conditions of supervision. The implementation of this law allows PPO’s to impose a range of sanctions up to and including jail time. Like the establishment of PSP, this law was made possible through the collaboration of justice system stakeholders, and it gave PPO’s the authority to implement sanctions. The public safety partners realized that by not requiring a court hearing to impose short jail stays on probation and parole violators, the process would be more effective, saving time and money.

But it’s important not to overuse jail, even for the limited purposes of “swift and certain” sanctioning. After years of DCJ using more than 600 jail beds daily for this purpose, DCJ and our County Commissioners established a target of using fewer than 450 jail beds a day. Our target is based on research that continues to show that the length of a jail sanction has little impact on an offender’s success in completing probation or parole, and that longer stays are actually detrimental to public safety by increasing the likelihood of recidivism. This has led us to review when and how jail beds are used for sanctioning, and to consciously limit jail stays imposed for purposes of sanctioning violations of probation and parole.  As a result, lengths of stay have declined, and DCJ now uses a yearly average of 379 beds a day to sanction violators. When comparing 2008 to the present, we’re using about 80,000 fewer jail beds a year.

We look forward to continuing this work as one of the 20 jurisdictions selected to participate in the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, a national initiative to change the way America thinks about and uses jails. As we’ve already seen, the result of our commitment—along with that of our local public safety partners—to positively impact those under our supervision and their families by keeping them in the community when appropriate has increased public safety, saved taxpayer money, and contributed to stronger communities.