Archives for February 2008

Managing the Mentally Ill Offender in Washington, D.C.

“We Fix the Complexities of Life”

By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr. and Beverly Hill. Edited by Cedric Hendricks and Joyce McGinnis

See http://media.csosa.gov for “DC Public Safety” radio and television shows.

See www.csosa.gov for the web site of the federal Court Services and Offender Services Agency.

Walk down the streets of any major American city and you will likely encounter more than a few mentally ill individuals. Sometimes friendly, sometimes demanding and often scary, mentally ill people pose both a serious public health problem and a moral dilemma for our society. Both victimizer and victim, the mentally ill present especially unique challenges for those of us within the criminal justice system.

According to a Washington Post story filed by Rick Weiss on June 7, 2005, a recent National Institute of Mental Health study found that “One quarter of all Americans met the criteria for having a mental illness within the past year, and fully a quarter of those had a serious disorder that significantly disrupted their ability to function day to day.” Many criminologists suggest that rates of mental illness are even higher among the criminal offender population.

The vast majority of criminological concern for the mentally ill seems directed towards incarceration. Anyone working in our jails or prisons knows of the unique challenges mentally ill offenders offer to institutions attempting to balance security and treatment needs with the realities of budget. It’s difficult to operate within a purely medical model when a mentally ill offender becomes violent or disruptive and threatens the safety and security of the institution. Most correctional professionals have witnessed nurses and psychologists attempting to “talk down” an inmate after a verbal and near-physical encounter with staff or fellow inmates. Seething with emotion and ready to burst, the mentally ill inmate may sometimes stay in that agitated condition for hours at a time while the realities of prison continue to surround them.

Society justifiably calls for humane treatment. Correctional staff just try to keep the peace. But sooner or later, the mentally ill inmate is released back to the community, usually with the same mental health issues they went in with. What happens then?

In the Community

In the District of Columbia, they come to a unique federal, executive branch organization, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA). CSOSA supervises 15,500 offenders on parole, supervised release or probation every day. CSOSA assigns almost 50 percent of its caseload to its highest levels of supervision or to specialized caseloads, where each Community Supervision Officer (CSO – known elsewhere as a parole or probation officer) is responsible for only 25 or 30 offenders. Backed up by extensive drug testing, cooperative endeavors with police and prosecutors, a state-of-the-art information technology system, satellite tracking and 50 to 1 general supervision caseload ratios, CSOSA is well positioned to implement its community-based model of offender supervision. This research-based model combines the traditional elements of supervision with an equal emphasis on treatment, social services, and community involvement.

CSOSA’s specialized units offers counseling and special supervision techniques to offenders who are hard core substance abusers, involved in acts of violence, domestic violence, sex offenses and traffic-alcohol issues. Offenders with mental health issues may interact with any of these categories and are assigned to the Metal Health Unit. CSOSA currently supervises almost 800 offenders with confirmed mental health diagnoses Eighty-five percent are male. Some are assigned to mental health institutions and are monitored through regular correspondence with the facility.

CSOSA’s mental health teams have among the lowest caseload ratios in the country. At 30 offenders to each Community Supervision Officers, CSOs and their supervisors have contact with the offender an average of three to four times per week. All CSOs come to the job with a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and many hold master’s degrees as well. Most have a background in law or the criminological or social sciences. Most CSOs on the mental health teams volunteered for the assignment.

Thirty CSOs and supervisors staff the mental health teams. Mental health offenders are assigned to this specialized unit via a D.C. Superior Court or U.S. Parole Commission order; offenders assigned to another unit may also be referred by the CSO for evaluation. CSOSA contracts with psychologists who conduct an assessment of every referred offender. If the psychologist establishes a diagnosis of mental illness, retardation or a personality disorder, “gatekeepers” (licensed professional counselors with master’s degrees) then see the offender. It’s their job to represent the offender as he or she navigates through the District of Columbia’s mental health system to obtain counseling, therapy and medication services.

CSOSA’s gatekeepers have expert knowledge of the public and private resources available. In addition to the standard D.C. agencies, CSOSA explores alternative strategies, such as accessing services through Medicaid or the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. The focus is on developing a precise diagnosis and an appropriate intervention plan, so that psychologists and social workers can act as advocates to get each offender the best possible treatment.

Once the offender’s mental health condition is controlled, he or she can benefit from other CSOSA services, such as job training, drug treatment, anger management or a faith-based mentor.

Community Supervision Officers

But CSOSA contends that a vital ingredient in the success of the program is the dedication of the Community Supervision Officers who see the offenders on a regular basis. “We care about the public’s safety and the offender’s progress,” states 30-year veteran and supervisor Verna Young. “We are determined to achieve both.”

Ms. Young suggests that the CSOs who volunteer for the mental health team are some of the best in CSOSA, if not some of the best in the nation. “Think about it for a moment,” she urges. “These are highly educated individuals who deal with the toughest clients possible. These offenders bring an immense array of problems that would challenge the most dedicated professional. We are the lifeline between the mental health profession, their families and friends, their employers and everyone who interacts with them. We talk them down from negative encounters. We act as intermediaries with frustrated family members. They grow to depend on us for structure and guidance in a world that offers fear and resistance. We help them survive on their own without returning to the criminal justice or social services system. More importantly, we help them exist without doing harm to anyone else.”

DeAndro Baker, Verna’s supervisor and another seasoned veteran of the criminal justice system, explains that offenders with mental health, retardation issues and personality disorders offer an amazing array of problems.

Research for all criminal offenders (examples: Bureau of Justice Statistics-Prior Abuse Reported by Inmates and Probationers and the National Institute of Justice-Early Childhood Victimization Among Incarcerated Adult Male Felons) indicates that substantial social problems result from child abuse and neglect, sexual and physical violence, early age onset of alcohol and drug use and criminal activity. Couple all of this with poor school performance and limited employment histories and involvement in the criminal justice system, and the challenges seem insurmountable. To state that the average offender is a trial is an understatement. Add mental health or retardation or personality disorders, and the challenges are immense.

“But we do not shy from the task at hand,” states Mr. Baker. “The bottom line is protecting the public. We will not hesitate to go back to the courts or the U.S. Parole Commission and state that the individual cannot be safely supervised in the community. We will reincarcerate. But we do everything in our power, including day reporting, to make sure that offenders live a productive life without harm to themselves or others. We are the front line in the effort to serve the offender’s needs and protect society, and we do it every day.”

“The New Asylums”

All of this takes on greater importance as society grapples with the need for safety, balanced with a desire for humane treatment. This dilemma was explored in a “Frontline” episode entitled “The New Asylums” (www.pbs.org/wbgh/frontline) produced by WGBH in Boston and co-produced by Mead Street Films. The episode aired on PBS stations on May 10, 2005. The implications of the program are profound. There are no easy answers.

The New York Times reported on the episode: “An enormously disturbing Frontline report profiles the enormously disturbed.” Times reporter Ned Martin wrote that the documentary …. “explains that the mentally ill, in the decade after a mass release from mental hospitals, have often wound up in less forgiving confines.”

“The New Asylums asserts that 500,000 mentally ill patients, who in earlier decades would’ve been treated in hospitals, are now mistreated in prisons. The mental hospitals now house only a tenth of that number, the narrator says.”

Ultimately, after they leave the hospitals, or the prisons, the mentally ill return to the community.

According to the “Frontline” web site, “In 2004, some 630,000 prisoners were released back into their communities, many with mental illnesses and co-occurring disorders such as substance abuse. Studies have shown that 60 percent of released offenders are likely to be rearrested within 18 months, and that mentally ill offenders are likely to be rearrested at an even higher rate. Experts claim that a major cause for recidivism among the mentally ill is the “epidemic” shortfall in community-based mental health services (emphasis added). While offenders have a constitutional right to receive mental health treatment when they are incarcerated, they do not enjoy a similar right to treatment in the community…”

I do not understand how everything began to unravel,” said a 52-year-old woman from northwest DC. She is on probation for drug distribution. Her years of cocaine abuse produced severe depression and an array of medical problems. She just got out of drug treatment, but recently tested positive for marijuana. She understands that CSOSA will mandate twice a week drug testing as a sanction for drug use. She believes that this level of scrutiny (and the possibility of returning to jail) will keep her from doing drugs.

“I need structure in my life, and my CSO provides that structure. My CSO comes to my home to check on me. It’s nice that I can talk to people who insist that I take care of myself.”

A 48-year-old parolee from southeast DC presents similar problems. He was incarcerated for assault and gun charges. He is a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. His drug use (cocaine) was a social event with friends until it became a demon that made his illness much worse. Structure is an essential element in his rehabilitation, and the requirements of supervision help him cope with life’s problems. “As long as I keep my job, I can stay away from drugs and take care of my family. CSOSA helps me cope with problems and keeps me on track.” He admits that drug testing is an essential element. “It’s nice that they care,” he states, “but I know that they will put me back in prison if I do not improve, so I know that I must stay on my medication and do what they want me to do.”

“Public safety is combined with a sincere desire to assist…”

It was because of concern for the community that CSOSA started its innovative mental health caseload. “Public safety is combined with a sincere desire to assist these offenders in meaningful ways,” states CSOSA’s director, Paul A Quander, Jr. “We can manage this caseload in a way that services both goals.”

Thomas H. Williams, CSOSA’s Associate Director of Community Supervision Services, states, “The Frontline report only confirms our experience with mentally ill offenders. Many of the recommendations of the report are already in place within the District of Columbia. The challenges are immense, but we are attempting to meet them with vigor and dedication.”

Tiffany Robinson is ready. “We fix the complexities of life,” she states. A CSO on the Mental Health Unit, she is ready to bring her education and enthusiasm to the challenges offered by this population. Ms. Robinson understands her caseload. “They often say, “˜Please help me,” she reflects. “They do not understand the world they inhabit. It’s my job to help them cope, to reassure, to make the world a less frightening place. That requires structure, and that’s what we and the mental health professionals offer. If that need for structure leads to incarceration or commitment to a mental health facility, then so be it. We will protect society.”

Ms. Robinson understands that CSOSA embraces both sides of the challenges posed by the mentally ill offender. “But we will also offer a humane and compassionate hand to those who need it,” she says. “Thousands have become productive citizens because of it.”

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Faith-Based Offender Reentry Programs in Washington DC

The CSOSA/Faith Community Partnership

By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr. Edited by Cedric Hendricks and Joyce McGinnis

See http://media.csosa.gov for “DC Public Safety” radio and television shows.

See www.csosa.gov for the web site of the federal Court Services and Offender Services Agency.

“Religious organizations are long-standing and powerful community institutions. They often have histories with the families and the returning offender. That link often makes it easier for the individual to have new contacts that can move them to do well. Faith succeeds where other things often fail.” Rev. Donald L. Isaac, Executive Director of the East of the River Clergy-Police-Community Partnership in Washington, D.C. and Chair of the CSOSA Faith Advisory Council.

Many offenders are truly ready for change. Those of us in the profession have often heard offenders state that they “are sick and tired of being sick and tired.” We typically read that 50 percent of releases return to prison within three years. But 50 percent do not. Many professionals and policymakers, including President Bush in his 2004 State of the Union speech, believe we can do better.

Successful offenders tell us that the stabilizing influence of family and caring community members made the difference. Job training, substance abuse counseling and other forms of help are important. But nothing is as powerful as the mother, father, wife, children or friend who provide the structure and support necessary to succeed. Many of us have struggled in our own lives and contemplated the lure of alcohol or other destructive behaviors as relief. When confronted with an angry and insistent mother, spouse or friend, we often find the courage to mend our ways. It’s no different with offenders.

But who can repair the broken link between a returning offender and his or her family?

The Role of Faith Communities

It’s often the church, mosque or synagogue that provides the bridge between the returning offender and family. Religious leaders and their congregations can act as intermediaries, coaches and sources of services. They can also influence the broader community’s attitudes toward ex-offenders.

In many neighborhoods, few institutions are as powerful than the church, synagogue or mosque. These institutions speak for the community in ways that other organizations cannot. They often set moral standards. Their leaders become spokespersons for local issues. More important, these institutions provide structure, fellowship and a frame of reference for both identity and possibility. On the day-to-day level, they also provide necessary social assistance.

Law enforcement organizations have embraced “faith-based” solutions to problems for as long as cops have walked local beats. Officers dealing with verbally abusive husbands go to local ministers (as well as clinics) for intervention. They ask priests to arrange for drug counseling or Imams to mentor straying probationers. Many of us have asked religious leaders for assistance at one time or another. We do it because they have the resources. We do it because they have the moral authority, and they know how to use it. They know when to speak softly and encouragingly. They also know when to challenge a “knucklehead” because he desperately needs a wake-up call.

But the question is how to take the moral and practical authority of “faith” and apply it to meeting the needs of returning offenders. In Washington, D.C., we are taking the power of faith and moving it to a larger (and hopefully) more productive level.

The Provision of Resources

In Washington, D.C., there are approximately 140 trained faith-based volunteers operating under the umbrella of the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA-D.C.’s federally funded parole and probation agency) who provide an array of services.

Returning offenders often have at least loose ties to a congregation. Volunteers within the church, mosque or synagogue can act as mentors or coaches. They can repair damaged relationships within families. They can provide housing (which is increasingly challenging as real estate costs go up in D.C.). Drug treatment can be offered. Clothing can be provided for job interviews. Meals are offered. People are willing to listen, care and provide fellowship.

But the most important thing may be acceptance by someone beyond another addict or gang member. The power of faith-based volunteers is that they bring credibility and the potential for a long-term, positive source of support and influence that government cannot provide during the time that a person may be on parole or supervised release.

Rev. Donald Isaac understands the unique power of faith to reach returning offenders. “Everyone returning home after years away has a need to feel connected with family, friends and community,” he says. “It’s the same for offenders. The faith community can be that connection when there are no others. We can be the family the offender is looking for.”

Religious bodies have resources at their immediate disposal, or they can refer offenders to other locations or services that are part of the larger denomination. As important as spirituality is, and it may be the key for many of us, the availability of the right resources at the right time can be crucial.

“The sacred, spiritual mission must be there to change. You have to have it. It may not mean a reliance on a religion, but faith is a necessary component of change. To make progress on the path to peace, belief in yourself is a crucial first step. Offenders see it work with others. They begin to believe. Spirituality gives hope beyond human needs.” Muhammad Karim, a founder of Path to Peace, Inc.

Well over 600,000 offenders are released from prison every year in the United States. Thousands more are released from jails. According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, over two thirds are rearrested for felonies and serious misdemeanors within three years. These statistics have prompted many policymakers to see reentry and faith-based programs as necessary.

This is new ground. Members of the criminal justice community are increasingly seeking alliances with the faith community. We see the possibility of tapping into new support structures with rewarding possibilities.

The Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency and Faith-Based Efforts

CSOSA is a federal, executive branch entity providing parole and probation services for Washington, D.C. CSOSA is a research-based, technologically oriented community corrections agency with a growing national reputation. CSOSA is a new federal agency, independent as of August of 2000.

The CSOSA/Faith Community Partnership was initiated in FY 2002 as an innovative and pragmatic collaboration to expand the range of support services available to offenders returning from incarceration. The program bridges the gap between prison and community by helping them get started with a new life.

But more important, we recognize that spirituality and the moral authority of religious organizations motivates some returnees in ways that conventional programs cannot. Combine this with supportive people and resources and one realizes that faith-based efforts can be a very important indegredieant for crime prevention and stable comminities.

Why do faith-based efforts work?

Rev. Stephen Tucker, pastor of New Commandant Baptist Church in northwest Washington and recipient of a grant from the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing (COPS) office, recently hosted a two-day conference on how offenders relate to police and community. The sessions were designed to get offenders to understand law enforcement and police to understand offenders and their struggles to successfully reintegrate after prison. People from around the country participated.

A primary lesson? The deep distrust of police (or other government agencies) towards ex-offenders opens a door for faith-based efforts. The church can be a bridge to bring people together.

Rev. Tucker cites another reason why faith-based programs can be effective. “African-Americans are wedded to God and spirituality,” he says. We have to return to our history. Spirituality is part of our experience and our survival. It is the key to our future success.”

Evolution

During the early stages of the CSOSA/Faith Community Partnership, mentoring has been the primary focus. The mentoring initiative links offenders with concerned members of the faith community who offer support, friendship, and assistance during the difficult period of re-entry. During the transition from prison to neighborhood, returning offenders can be overwhelmed by large and small problems. Participating offenders are matched with a volunteer mentor from one of the participating faith-based institutions.

The philosophy of mentoring is to build strong moral values and provide positive role models for ex-offenders returning to our communities through coaching and spiritual guidance. Mentors also help identify linkages to faith-based resources that assist in the growth and development of mentees.

According to an in-house evaluation conducted from March, 2002 to March, 2005, CSOSA referred 212 offenders to the program and 411 individuals from the faith community participated in training designed to help them to help the offenders.

Where most mentoring programs offer one-on-one mentoring, the CSOSA/faith community mentoring program provides a group of supportive, positive mentors for each of the offenders. The group mentoring strategy allows the program to not only address what are often multiple needs of the offender, but the group also serves as a n alternative for offenders who either lack a strong family support system or face negative-anti-social peer groups.

The evaluation found that the group mentoring approach has provided the alternative positive and supportive assistance that contribute to offenders’ successful transition from prison to the community.

The mentoring initiative is a first step toward a citywide network of faith-based services, including job training, substance abuse aftercare and support, transitional housing, family counseling, and other services.

Structure of the Partnership

Early in the initiative, an Advisory Council was selected by the participating clergy to maximize the participation of the faith community. Much of the Advisory Council’s activity has centered on helping CSOSA achieve its goal of denominational inclusiveness

Three geographically based clusters were created using the District’s ward boundaries. These divisions were based upon the distribution of offenders’ residences, the location of participating faith organizations and the location of CSOSA field offices.

The faith community nominated a “lead institution” in each cluster. CSOSA prepared a formal contractual solicitation and made official selections in May of 2002. Approximately $100,000 was provided to each cluster to cover administrative costs.

Each Lead Institution hired a cluster coordinator to function as the clergy’s staff leader/liaison with CSOSA. Each cluster convenes meetings (at least monthly) to discuss experiences, opportunities and issues that need to be addressed to optimize the quality and synergy of this effort. The cluster coordinators meet with CSOSA staff on a monthly basis to review accomplishments and impediments.

Part of the faith strategy involves a successful video mentoring program with a federal prison in North Carolina in which over one thousand DC inmates are housed. In addition, CSOSA has used video conferencing at this facility to introduce re-entrants to their prospective mentors while they are still incarcerated. This has proven to be a workable vehicle to address the needs of re-entrants as they transition into release status. Many have had little or no contact with their families or the community during their period of confinement.

Involvement in this initiative has contributed to additional resources becoming available to two of the lead institutions. As noted above, New Commandment has received a COPS grant. Another lead institution, East of the River Clergy-Police-Community Partnership, has received funding from the Department of Labor to implement a job readiness and placement program

What Do Mentors Do?

During the transition from prison to community, returning offenders can be overwhelmed by both large and small problems-everything from getting a job to maintaining a residence to negotiating public transportation. Mentors work with CSOSA’s Community Supervision Officers to address some of these problems. Most importantly, mentors provide individual support and guidance. They let the offender know that the community is invested in their success.

Mentors help in a variety of ways, such as:

  • § Coaching in job interview skills.
  • § Locating a clothing bank to obtain appropriate clothes for work.
  • § Introducing the offender to a faith institution’s support services and leisure activities.
  • § Helping the offender to develop independent living skills, such as budgeting or shopping.
  • § Helping the offender negotiate changes in his or her relationships with family and loved ones.

How Are Mentors Selected?

In order to become a mentor, volunteers must meet certain criteria. They:

  • § Must be affiliated with a participating faith institution. This does not have to be the house of worship to which the mentor belongs. If an individual wants to become a mentor but his or her church is not a partnership participant, another institution will sponsor the mentor.
  • § Must complete an application and a personal interview with the Cluster Coordinator.
  • § Must complete 12 hours of initial training.
  • § Must be willing to commit at least two hours per week, and must be willing to stay with the program for six months.

Conclusion

The CSOSA Faith Community Partnership is an exciting endeavor that will hopefully result in reduced recidivism and safer communities. With large numbers of offenders in need, the task of coordination and cooperation has been challenging. The program is continuously evolving.

Churches, mosques and synagogues can provide leadership, resources and strategies in a coordinated and focused way that we in government find difficult to offer. They bring credibility, long-term support, family, community connections and faith.

Community supervision can provide a structure of accountability, drug treatment, job placement assistance, and more. The faith community can provide the essence of what it means to be a complete human being. Both are necessary.

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Supervising and Treating Violent Drug Offenders in the Nation’s Capital

By: Leonard A. Sipes, Jr. Edited by Cedric Hendricks and Joyce McGinnis

See http://media.csosa.gov for “DC Public Safety” radio and television shows.

See www.csosa.gov for the web site of the federal Court Services and Offender Services Agency.

Since the increase in crime during the mid 1960’s, the primary challenge within the criminal justice system has been the substance-abusing offender. Society in general, and the justice system in particular, has revised their thoughts on crime and what we should do about criminals. However, the concern regarding the drug addicted offender remains constant.

We have learned a lot in the last four decades. For instance, we have experienced epidemics of heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine, and endless other illicit substances along the way. Proposed remedies have ranged from therapeutic communities (sometimes involving whole prison wings devoted to drug treatment) to “tough-love” environments to today’s focus on assessment (placing the offender in the most effective modality) and cognitive-behavioral therapy. Both state and federal governments have tried mandatory incarceration and alternative community-based approaches.

Although the rate of crime in the U.S. has been at record lows for the last ten years, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that populations within the prison and community corrections systems have increased. Most of the increase is driven by substance abusing offenders and changes in sentencing.

In the 1994 report “Controlling Cocaine: Supply vs. Demand Programs,” the Rand Corporation projected that for every dollar spent on drug treatment society reaps seven dollars in benefit (http://www.mindfully.org/Reform/Cocaine-Supply-Demand1994.htm). There are many studies (The Washington State Institute for Public Policy provides a summation) that supply the good news that drug and alcohol treatment works to reduce criminal activity, as well as a range of other positive results (http://www.wsipp.wa.gov/rptfiles/06-06-3901.pdf).

But the bottom line of 40 years of effort is that 80 percent of offenders coming into this country’s correctional institutions have histories of substance abuse, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that the vast majority do not receive treatment in prison. These same individuals will enter community supervision, where the lack of treatment will influence whether, and how quickly, they relapse into using drugs and committing crimes.

The Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA) attempts to deal not just with criminal offenders with histories of drug use, but with individuals that some describe as the most difficult people in the criminal justice system.

CSOSA (http://www.csosa.gov/ and http://media.csosa.gov/ ) is the federal agency that provides parole and probation supervision for D.C. Code offenders in Washington, D.C. CSOSA is responsible for approximately 15,000 offenders each day. Approximately 2,000 offenders return from prison to the nation’s capital each year.

CSOSA has adopted notably stringent contact and drug testing standards. The agency is equally committed to providing the services necessary to assist offenders on supervision. Special supervision units involve high-risk drug offenders, sex and mental health offenders, and those with drinking and driving, or domestic violence issues. The agency also provides educational and vocational assistance. CSOSA has developed an innovative network of partnerships to bring as many resources as possible to the task of community supervision.

The Drug Unit Teams

Two special supervision teams provide interventions for approximately 500 high-risk offenders with extensive criminal and substance abuse histories. They are:

  • Substance Abuse and Intervention Team (SAINT) provides supervision for high-risk parole offenders;
  • Sanctions Team for Addition and Recovery (STAR) supervises probationers using the drug court model.

“The drug units deal with the toughest substance abuse offenders within the CSOSA system,” states DeAndro Baker, Branch Chief for substance abuse, mental health and traffic-alcohol teams for CSOSA. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Certified Cognitive Behavioral Therapist, Master Addiction Counselor, and certified train the trainer in “What Works” by the National Institute of Corrections.

“We go where few dare to tread,” Baker states. “We know that offenders in the specialized drug units have co-occurring disorders [concurrent mental health and substance abuse diagnoses], are more likely to re-offend, and are at a higher risk to commit anti-social acts. We utilize a range of graduated sanctions to reinforce positive behavior and to swiftly address antisocial attitudes and belief systems. Appropriate sanctions are then followed by proper interventions, including a variety of community-based treatment and programming options. We take public safety and the conditions of release very seriously. The overall effort is to change criminal thinking and behaviors.”

Fifteen Community Supervision Officers (CSO’s–known as parole and probation agents elsewhere) in SAINT and STAR, along with three supervisors, provide a combination of supervision and services. The caseload ratio of 35 offenders per CSO enables close supervision of these high-risk offenders. The normal ratio of supervision in CSOSA is 50 to 1. Lowering caseloads to a level that permits substantial, meaningful contact between the offender and the CSO has been a priority within CSOSA since the agency was established in 1997.

A combination of veteran officers and new CSO’s fresh from the agency’s training academy staff the unit. Mr. Baker indicates that officers “are grounded in clinical evaluation, treatment planning, and establishing and maintaining a continuum of care.” CSO’s provide individual and group counseling. They use a combination of strict accountability and motivational counseling to try to reorient offenders into a new way of thinking and gaining control over their lives. Working with this tough offender population is not only challenging but also critical to public safety. Mr. Baker indicates, “The key to effective supervision is the Community Supervision Officers.”

The Offenders

With the right mix of treatment services and accountability, many offenders go on to lead productive and crime free lives. CSOSA is dedicated to offering the right combination of case management and treatment. The Washington State Public Policy Institute’s 2006 study of adult corrections programs concluded that the combination of supervision and treatment holds one of the more promising approaches to community supervision and reducing recidivism (http://www.wsipp.wa.gov/pub.asp?docid=06-01-1201).

CSOSA has been successful in using special units and partnerships (especially with the faith-based community) to achieve promising results. Close to half our daily population is in a specialized treatment unit or is undergoing intensive supervision, vocational assessments, coordinated treatment activities, and drug testing. The drug units, however, deal with offenders who pose challenges beyond those presented by other offenders.

“In supervision, we provide in-depth case management that includes: screening; assessments; treatment planning; referrals; staffing; counseling and documenting the offenders’ efforts. A performance plan is constructed that provides instructions to assist the offender in making lifestyle changes towards desired pro-social activities,” states Mr. Baker.

To understand the kind of offender and modalities we are talking about, you need to get to the root of the problem-the underlying psychological problems and issues that drive substance abuse and criminality.

According to staff, it’s that “root understanding” that causes some observers to have difficulty in understanding what the units do. “We’re not about business as usual,” Baker states. “We are about restructuring a person who desperately needs help with problem solving, self efficacy, internal accountability, employment readiness, and simple life skills.”

“Working with substance abusers is challenging,” states Cassandra N. Brown, a 15-year veteran in community supervision who has been with CSOSA since its inception. “There are always other issues in the background.”

Brown works with probationers in the drug court. She finds the drug court effective and supportive because of the swift impositions of sanctions and the attention of caring judges. An increasing body of national research on drug courts, such as that cited in the National Institute of Justice report Drug Courts: the Second Decade, points to their efficacy and impact on recidivism (http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/211081.pdf).

The Program

“We tell them that it’s going to be different,” states Ms. Brown. “They don’t believe us, but that’s how the process begins.”

Every offender brings an array of issues. Housing, health care, jobs and substance abuse are just the tip of the iceberg. Significant numbers of offenders, according to Department of Justice research, claim histories of child abuse and neglect  or mental health problems.

While most of us can be compared to a glass that is 70 or 80 percent full, many criminal offenders are people whose glass is perpetually 30 percent full. Addressing the needs of housing and providing job opportunities or drug counseling increases the fullness of the glass. The question that continues to confound criminologists is defining the point at which a combination of supervision and services tips the scales and the offender begins to overcome his or her difficulties. “To overcome those problems, you have to screen, assess, and plan to restructure the person,” states Mr. Baker.

The process begins with comprehensive evaluation of the offender’s background. Within CSOSA, there are teams of specialists who perform evaluations of substance abuse, mental, educational or criminal histories. Offenders in need are placed in specialized programs as appropriate.

According to Mr. Baker, the foundation for effective supervision of these offenders is identifying the crisis points in their lives. The unit does not simply focus on substance abuse but also on the many issues that offenders face. Relapse and problems are expected. A variety of sanctions and interventions are in place to deal with anticipated problems.

“We teach them how to deal with the endless triggers of negative behavior in their lives,” Ms. Brown says. “Through individual and group counseling, we role play these triggers for violence and drugs and teach them that there are better ways to conduct their lives. They need to understand the triggers and how to govern themselves.”

A psychologist, a licensed counselor, supervisors and Mr. Baker run the group counseling sessions and provide individual assistance. They assist with the “heavy duty co-occurring” cases. Community Supervision Officers can also run groups to constantly reinforce the lessons of role-play and “trigger” management.

Modalities used in groups can include cognitive therapy under a variety of guises, including psycho educational classes with names like “Thinking for a Change” or “Reality Therapy.” Strategies are chosen that fit the lifestyle and background of the offender. Baker insists that there is nothing “cookie-cutter” in their approach. “The assessments tell us what the person needs, and we build a case management strategy that evokes change,” he states. “Basically, it all comes down to understanding stages of change, criminological identifiers, anti-social thinking, environmental triggers, pro-social modeling, interventions, structure, and what the offender can do about them.”

Strict supervision is crucial. The units constantly interact with the offender within the office and out in the community. The drug units, drug testing professionals and sanctions teams within CSOSA can come into contact with the offender as many as six times each week. The Drug Court side of the program (for probationers) insures that offenders are before the judge as needed.

It’s the combination of strict supervision and treatment that works to reduce recidivism, according to staff members. “They need the structure. They require the contacts and drug testing. Anything less is setting them up for failure,” according to staff.

Staff insists that they will not hesitate to start the process that may return or place a person in prison. But they are equally adamant that offenders can be taught to successfully deal with the addictions and other challenges their lives.

The Reentry and Sanctions Center–Reductions in Re-arrests are Possible

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 67 percent of all those released from prison commit felonies and serious misdemeanors within three years of release. Many commit multiple serious crimes. The lesson of this and other research is that future criminality is probable (http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/rpr94.pdf).

CSOSA has a new and important tool to help interrupt the cycle of substance abuse and crime. The agency’s Reentry and Sanctions Center (RSC), which opened in the spring of 2006, is a 100-bed residential facility that provides 28 days of intensive assessment, pre-treatment programming, and case planning for offenders with long histories of drug abuse and crime. The RSC expands the strategies available to CSOSA-and increases the probability that at least some of these offenders will escape the revolving door for good. More information on the RSC is available at (http://www.csosa.gov/) or (http://www.csosa.gov/reentry/rsc_leadership.pdf). The latter provides specifics as to components for the SAINT program.

The SAINT parole team supervises offenders who graduate from the Reentry and Sanctions Center. Prior to the RSC’s opening, CSOSA operated a smaller program, the Assessment and Orientation Center, which was partially funded by the Washington-Baltimore HIDTA. Studies by the University of Maryland’s Institute for Behavior and Health found that offenders who completed the program at the Assessment and Orientation Center were significantly less likely to be arrested after the program.

A 2001 study indicated that all HIDTA program participants (from programs in other locations) experienced a 47 percent decrease in arrest rate. The Reentry and Sanction Center graduates supervised by the drug units experienced a 35 percent decrease. Considering their drug, criminal and social histories, this type of success seems nothing short of remarkable.

“If we can achieve these results with a very difficult population, it’s clear that, given the resources, parole and probation agencies throughout the country can do a better job of supervision,” states Thomas Williams, Associate Director of Community Supervision Services. “We can protect the public and reduce future criminality. Our experience can help.”

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Domestic Violence Prevention in Washington, DC

The Domestic Violence Branch of the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency

By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr. Edited by Cedric Hendricks and Joyce McGinnis

See http://media.csosa.gov for “DC Public Safety” radio and television shows.

See www.csosa.gov for the web site of the federal Court Services and Offender Services Agency.

“To experience domestic violence is to walk into hell over and over again,”she said. She was a victim of constant beatings by her former husband. She decided to bring charges. I was a young police officer, assigned to check on her (and her children’s) safety while she navigated the criminal justice system. She explained that the beatings were severe and frequent. Her self-esteem had reached rock bottom. Her children, ages five and nine, wanted their father. She had hinted at suicide.

To many, the phrase “domestic violence” does not do justice to the far-reaching impact of this crime on the lives of the perpetrator, victim, children, extended family, friends and larger society. One victim said that anything less than the phrase “vicious beatings by someone who knows you” does an injustice to the issue. Another suggested that “constant assaults that screw up the lives of everybody” comes closer to reality. The trauma of domestic violence is almost endless: mental health issues, school dropouts, workplace problems, drug and alcohol abuse and the general deterioration of families all correlate to the presence of violence in the home. There are criminologists who believe that solving the domestic violence crisis in America is central to reducing crime and restoring neighborhoods.

For example, studies suggest that 3-10 million children witness some form of domestic violence annually. A 1998 study by found that slightly more than half of female victims of intimate violence live in households with children under age 12. Children who witness domestic violence are more likely to exhibit health and behavioral problems including depression, anxiety and violence toward peers. They are also more likely to attempt suicide, abuse drugs and alcohol, run away from home, engage in teenage prostitution and commit sexual assault crimes.

In the nation’s capital, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA) is addressing domestic violence in an aggressive and comprehensive way. “Domestic violence is a pervasive problem with far-reaching consequences. Solving the problem requires a comprehensive approach that holds people strictly accountable for their actions while providing them the tools to avoid the behavior in the future,” states Paul A. Quander, Jr., CSOSA’s Director. ” Domestic violence is a community problem that cannot be ignored.”

Legislative Remedies

The mission of CSOSA’s Domestic Violence Branch is to increase public safety and prevent future victimization by providing close supervision and treatment for individuals convicted of domestic violence offenses. CSOSA also provides a range of services for victims. The Domestic Violence Branch also partners with stakeholders to facilitate awareness of domestic violence in the community. The US Attorney’s Office, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), DC Superior Court, the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence, victim advocates and others are intimately involved in the process.

Domestic violence has been a high-profile issue in the nation’s capitol for more than a decade. In 1991, the D.C. Council enacted the Prevention of Domestic Violence Amendment Act. In 1992, the D.C. Superior Court established the Domestic Violence Intervention Program to address the increase in domestic violence arrests and the number of offenders sentenced to probation for those crimes. The initial thrust of the program was to provide batterers with counseling in an effort to reduce repeat offenses.

When the U.S. Congress created CSOSA in 1997, through the National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act, the new agency assumed responsibility for the community supervision of domestic violence offenders. The transition to a federally-funded probation and parole agency has dramatically improved domestic violence supervision. Since its inception, CSOSA has established four specialized supervision teams focusing exclusively on domestic violence offenders and two domestic violence treatment teams to provide needed counseling and treatment services and referrals. Reduced caseloads on these specialized supervision teams has allowed for increased monitoring of these offenders and improved support services.

Ground Zero: The Community Supervision Officer

CSOSA’s Community Supervision Officers (CSO) are at “Ground Zero” in the agency’s efforts to provide effective supervision of domestic violence cases. The agency ratio of CSOs to offenders is approximately 52 to 1. In specialized units, such as the Domestic Violence Unit, the ratio is 33 to 1. CSOSA’s four supervision and two treatment teams manage 1,300 domestic violence offenders. Domestic violence offenders are subject to the same drug testing regimen, periodic police contacts through joint patrols (Accountability Tours) and strict accountability requirements of other offenders. They have the same opportunities for drug treatment, vocational and educational placement and training, and faith-based mentoring offered to any other offender. Domestic Violence offenders can be on both probation and parole.

CSO Rodney Carter, a five-year CSOSA veteran, is a member of Team 40, which is devoted exclusively to domestic violence supervision work. Rodney was a treatment provider during his first year, and has been a supervision officer for the other four. He holds a masters degree in social work from Howard University and moved to the District of Columbia from Charlottesville, VA to pursue his goal of being a probation officer. “This is where the need is,” he explains. Working with disadvantaged populations and providing a positive role model is important to me. It’s important to provide an example and keep the community safe.”

“When I ran treatment groups for domestic violence, the focus was on offenders accepting responsibility for their actions and challenging their belief systems. Many offenders believe that violence is okay. They think it is an appropriate way to treat a person, whether they were strangers or intimate others,” he states.

Carter explains how domestic violence treatment works. “In treatment, we challenge the notion that violence is acceptable. Many offenders witnessed the abuse of their mothers or other women. The popular culture promotes violence-it suggests that violence is OK. Substance abuse is often connected to, but not necessarily caused by, domestic violence. It removes inhabitations. Offenders would say that it happened because “˜I was drunk.'”

“My job to break through these myths. In a group setting, members of the group would challenge and learn from each other. Not everyone can be helped. But I’ve learned that I can affect people and help them change. I can provide a safer environment for the participants and their children. The vast majority of those involved in domestic violence have children, so the implications are considerable for all involved. I provide offenders with the skills they can apply during difficult situations.”

Carter says that this work has changed him, too. “The experience has taught me to be a better person,” he says. “It’s taught me that domestic violence is an ongoing challenge that must be dealt with to create a better society. I love this work, and I love the challenge.”

Domestic violence CSOs meet regularly with offenders to monitor compliance with all supervision conditions. They are required to establish and maintain communication with victims to verify compliance with all “Stay Away” orders. CSOs are responsible for consultation with others associated with the offender (known as collateral contacts). These include family members and friends, employers, counselors and others to determine the offender’s overall adjustment to supervision.

Meeting with collateral contacts allows the CSO to determine if offenders are complying with their supervision obligations and to verify information provided by the offenders. The supervision level and frequency of contacts by the CSO is based on a risk and needs assessment conducted at the beginning of supervision and at regular intervals during the term of supervision. Poor adjustment and non-compliance automatically results in increased contacts and sanctions imposed by the CSO in an effort to correct negative behavior.

Field visits are a critical component of the supervision process. They provide insight into the offender’s environment, associations, belief systems, and other factors. Incorporated into the field visits are accountability tours conducted with District of Columbia Metropolitan Police officers. These joint home visits provide police officers with critical information about offenders residing within the Police Service Area the officer patrols. Information sharing between the CSO and MPD officer is a vital component of supervision, especially if there is police contact with the offender in the absence of the CSO.

“We provide them with the chance to save their lives.”

Mark Collins is one of eight CSOs on Team 38. Mark has a BS in communications from Bowie State University. He began his career with CSOSA in 2001, serving as a drug-testing technician for 10 months until a CSO position opened up. He’s been a CSO for two years.

“I love it,” he states. “Every offender is different; every set of circumstances is a challenge. We take threats to victims very seriously. We act on their information immediately. Domestic violence is a real problem in DC. We try to work with the offenders; we try to help them, provide them with domestic violence and drug treatment, and we do whatever it takes to keep them from engaging in further acts of violence. But if offenders violate the terms of their court orders, and do it constantly, then they go back to the judge or the Parole Commission, and often jail.”

“We are in constant contact with the victims to protect them, and to learn from them. Many offenders feel that violence was justified because they claim that they were assaulted first. It’s the role of the 22-week treatment program to help offenders understand the dynamics of interactions with others. In many instances, offenders feel that aggression directed to them justifies violence in return. Counselors and supervision officers get them to understand violence and alternatives, or how to deal with a situation without busting a window or slashing a tire. We help them change the way they deal with anger. We help them see the world differently. We provide them with the chance to save their lives.”

“It’s very important for folks to succeed, and to get on with their lives. We will take an offender to treatment, we will take an offender to a job, and we will do whatever it takes.

It’s my goal to keep the community safe.”

Intervention

The DC court and community supervision system has used the Duluth Model since the early 1990s, which focuses on how the concept of power and control adversely affects intimate relationships. As mandated by court order and based on the offense, offenders are placed in either an 18-week Family Violence Intervention Program or a 22-week Domestic Violence Intervention Program.

The Duluth Model views power and control as the primary factors in battering behavior within intimate relationships. It advances the idea that males have internalized a set of socialization values that predisposes them, in intimate relationships, to be the dominant violence initiators and perpetrators of domestic violence, which the model considers a learned behavior that can be changed through counseling.

The Domestic Violence Intervention Program also offers a special counseling component dedicated to treating the Latino offender, under the counseling guidance of a Latino CSO.

The program has about a 60 percent completion rate. In the groups, counselors focus on persuading the offender to see the futility of violence in relationships, to accept responsibility for his/her role in the incident and to explore alternative ways to avoid violence using a safety plan. The program CSOs are specially trained, certified and licensed in the area of domestic violence counseling.

The program receives about 2,000 domestic violence referrals each year from the DC Superior Court. These referrals are usually the result of Civil Protection Orders, Deferred Sentence Agreements, Adult Probation, Parole or Supervised Release. Occasionally, pre-trial defendants are referred to the program by the Pretrial Services Agency.

The Domestic Violence Intervention Program also has a vendor component, which employs well-qualified private treatment providers to provide domestic violence counseling to employed offenders or offenders who have income, as opposed to unemployed offenders who receive the counseling at no cost from CSOSA domestic violence CSOs. The vendor and the non-fee programs are mutually complementary; offenders can transfer from one to the other if their employment status changes. The program currently has 14 vendors and 8 CSOSA CSOs providing treatment to domestic violence offenders.

The CSOSA domestic violence initiative, although very young, has achieved some positive results. Within two years of release from CSOSA supervision, 29.3 percent of all offenders are rearrested (for all crimes), versus 26.2 percent of those offenders going through the domestic violence program.

With an emphasis on public safety, examples of CSOSA’s efforts to improve offender lifestyles and modify behavior include:

  • An individual on probation for assault was being uncooperative with the supervision officer, evasive in providing information on employment, residence, and activities and was on occasion missing appointments without notice. Information was presented to the CSO that the offender was communicating with and intimidating the victim, in violation of the court order. It was also reported that the individual had come to the attention of local law enforcement authorities for possible involvement in other illegal activity in a designated police “hot-spot.” Based on this information and the officer’s contact with individuals familiar with the offender, the officer requested a court hearing to address the offender’s overall non-compliance. The court ordered the offender placed on intensive surveillance through the use of our Global Positioning System (GPS)-based electronic monitoring. The offender’s daily activity and location are now constantly monitored and community safety has been greatly enhanced. Restrictive areas have been imposed and we are now able to verify where the offender has been at all times.
  • A probationer on supervision for destruction of personal property within a domestic abuse setting, reported for supervision with numerous problems beyond her need for domestic violence treatment. A mother of two young children and a regular user of PCP, she displayed a negative attitude and unwillingness to comply with her conditions of supervision. The offender was returned to Court to address these issues and the Court’s intent was to revoke her probation. However, the supervision officer recognized redeeming qualities in the offender and presented options to the Court including residential treatment that would accommodate the offender’s two young children. The court agreed with the CSO and the offender was immediately placed in a residential treatment facility that allowed her to keep her children with her. She worked closely with the program staff and the CSO and successfully completed program. During her stay in the program, she was diagnosed with mental health problems. After participating in a transitional housing program, the offender and her two young children are now living in their own apartment. She continues to address her addiction issues with no evidence of relapse, and is participating in mental health counseling on a regular basis. The Court has extended her supervision period to allow continued monitoring of the offender’s progress.

CSOSA’s domestic violence initiatives will continue to include aggressive supervision and appropriate treatment for offenders. In an effort to promote community awareness and offer additional assistance to victims, Domestic Violence staff is conducting an ongoing cell phone collection drive to in collaboration with non-profit agencies that assist domestic violence victims. In 2004, CSOSA conducted its first annual conference on domestic violence. The conference focused on prevention and intervention techniques from government, advocates and nonprofit organizations and drew participants throughout the city and metropolitan area.

“Programs to deal with domestic violence can make our communities safer,” said Thomas Williams, CSOSA’s Associate Director for Community Supervision Services. “These efforts mean justice for victims and their children, which is essential to any caring society.”

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Supervising Criminal Offenders in Washington D.C.

A Day in the Life of a Community Supervision Officer

By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr. Edited by Cedric Hendricks and Joyce McGinnis

See http://media.csosa.gov for “DC Public Safety” radio and television shows.

See www.csosa.gov for the web site of the federal Court Services and Offender Services Agency.

It is a cold and misty morning in Southwest Washington D.C., and rain falls intermittently as we travel from house to house checking on adult criminal offenders in an area known for crime, drug use, poverty and despair. Joseph C. Alston moves through the community with intimate knowledge of its citizens and its problems. He is a Supervisory Community Supervision Officer, and is in charge of ten Community Supervision Officers-known as Parole and Probation Officers in most parts of the country. He knocks on the doors of people recently released from prison. Some expect his visit, some do not. Our arrival is greeted with a mix of friendly greetings and mild consternation.

Joe enters their apartments with confidence and a smile as he quickly scans the rooms for signs of danger, drugs or weapons, as well as any indicator that the offender is doing well. “Let me see your pay stub,” he politely asks the recipient of our latest visit. The offender is well known to Joe and the other Community Supervision Officers (CSOs) who observe offenders in this part of the District of Columbia. He greets Joe’s request with a smile and produces the document. They discuss drug treatment and the problems, hopes and aspirations of an individual who has seen the inside of many prisons and many programs.

“This job is about public safety and assisting offenders,” Joe says. “Our first priority is to protect the citizens of the District of Columbia. But it’s essential to make sure that offenders have the services they need to transform their lives.”

A New Agency

Joe belongs to a unique federal executive branch agency that Congress established as part of the National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act of 1997. The Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency of the District of Columbia (CSOSA) combined the D.C. Board of Parole and the probation function of D.C. Superior Court into a new federal agency. The D.C. Pretrial Services Agency is also included within CSOSA. After an initial three-year trusteeship, this new independent agency came into existence on August 4, 2000. The designers of the new agency were determined to make CSOSA a research and numbers driven organization that would incorporate the state-of-the-art in community supervision. The principals in CSOSA were determined to get it right and set the benchmark for the country.

There were problems before the establishment CSOSA. Large caseloads hampered effective supervision of offenders. There was little drug testing. Offenders with social needs were referred to agencies within the District of Columbia government for services. Experience teaches us that in many cases, effective community supervision depends on the direct provision of services or professionals who assist offenders in finding their way through complex and overwhelming bureaucracies.

Research from the National Institute of Justice in the mid 1990’s told us that intensive supervision alone would not reduce recidivism. Agencies had to provide tough regulation and social services that addressed the seemingly endless array of problems that offenders bring to supervision. That combination of accountability and services was lacking. Also lacking was computerization, research and a “management by objectives” style of operation. There was a need for partnerships with law enforcement, prosecutors and community organizations. These items have been addressed.

CSOSA has some of the lowest supervision caseloads in the country. The ratio for regular supervision is approximately 50 offenders to each CSO. The ratio for special supervision teams is approximately 30 offenders per CSO. There are specialized treatment and supervision teams for sex offenders, mental health, high-risk substance abuse, domestic violence, day reporting and violators of drinking and driving laws. The frequency of contact with these offenders is high. Classified at the upper end of the risk scale, they are seen a minimum of eight times a month, excluding time spent with treatment providers and drug testing professionals.

Unemployed offenders in some parts of the city are required to report to an extensive Day Reporting Program, which focuses on the educational and occupational needs of the clientele. Some offenders are tracked by satellite or other types of electronic monitoring.

Offenders are drug tested twice a week for the first eight weeks of supervision; the frequency of testing declines as the offender demonstrates continued compliance. However, one positive drug test mandates that you go back to the original testing schedule.

CSOSA conducts joint patrols with the Metropolitan Police Department, and conducts Mass Orientations for new offenders with police, staff of the US Attorneys Office, and treatment providers.

The agency has also developed and deployed one of the best automated case management tools in the country. The Supervision Management Automated Records Tracking (SMART) system is one of the most innovative record keeping systems available. Information is electronically shared with all personnel within CSOSA and allied agencies. “SMART” Lite is CSOSA’s next generation information management system, operating on small portable computers to accompany personnel wherever they go.

The agency has also developed the “Auto Screener,” which will comprehensively assess the offender’s risk to the community as well as determine their social needs and prescribe a specific supervision plan for each offender.

CSOSA has established a research and evaluation unit that tracks information collected by the agency through the SMART system. Early indicators of rearrests for probationers, reincarcerations, drug use and revocations back to prison indicate progress. Possibly the most important measurement is the fact that 94 percent of all violations in the last half of 2004 received an immediate response (called an intermediate sanction) from the CSO’s. A basic tenet of good community supervision is the ability and capacity to respond quickly and appropriately to violations. That is being accomplished within CSOSA.

CSOSA does far more than just monitor offenders under its supervision. CSOSA provides a wide array of services throughout the city that assist offenders with the transformation from a criminal lifestyle to that of a law-abiding taxpayer. Learning Labs are staffed with employment and educational specialists who assist offenders with basic educational and occupational needs. Each year, thousands are provided with services ranging from GED programs to apprenticeship opportunities and placement in jobs. With CSOSA’s assistance, offenders find opportunities for personal and job-related success, many for the first time in their lives.

With agency-funded drug treatment for high-risk offenders, mental health assessments, anger management, domestic violence treatment, and many other initiatives, one can understand that this agency and its personnel are in a unique position to make a difference.

But all of these resources and services are meaningless unless there is a caring individual to make sure offenders are doing what they’re supposed to do as well as taking advantage of unique opportunities for success. That’s why Joe Alston is making his way through trash filled streets and walking into apartment buildings surrounded by needles and graffiti. He is making sure that offenders are living up to the terms of their probation or parole and are hopefully taking advantage of services.

“You need to get yourself down to the learning lab,” he tells one reluctant offender. “You need to get a job to take care of your children. You need to get a future.” Joe continues with a list of apprenticeships and job opportunities that are available. He assures the offender that CSOSA has people dedicated to his success. The offender has been through a variety of social service agencies in the past. The complexity and difficulty of dealing with these agencies leads many offenders to despair and failure. Joe assures him that the CSOSA personnel at the learning lab are there solely for him and his success. “They know exactly what you are going through, and they are there to help you. This is something you have to do. You’ve got to get on your feet, you’ve got to get moving, and we can help.”

With Joe’s guidance, the offender begins the process of examining his future with professionals who are trained for that purpose. Without this kind of help and persistence, too many offenders give up on themselves and sink deeper into a life of violence and drugs.

Tough But Fair

“You tested positive for cocaine again,” Liasia S. Fenwick tells the offender sitting in her cubicle on South Capitol Street in Southeast D.C. Liasia has been with CSOSA for a little under 3 years. She was a housing counselor with DC social services and a drug counselor for Maryland parole and probation. New friends are surprised when the young looking Liasia tells them that she works with offenders and makes home visits in high crime areas.

“I told you what the ramifications would be if you tested positive,” she tells the frustrated parolee. The offender offers excuses. He provides explanations, rationalizations, justifications and enough twists and turns to describe a backcountry road. Liasia will have none of it. “Do you think you’re the first offender who’s told me all this?” she asks. “Do you think this is the first time I heard the story?”

Liasia informs the offender that she will apply the sanctions she warned him about when he first started testing positive for cocaine. CSOSA can only fund treatment for high-risk drug offenders, which means those at the middle or bottom of the spectrum must take advantage of in-house drug education or services provided by the District of Columbia government or charitable providers. With his return to drug use, Liasia sees the potential for the individual to blow any progress he has made in rearranging his life. She immediately arranges for a three-way conversation with her supervisor, Joe Alston, and begins making arrangements for the offender to be evaluated for treatment placement.

Liasia sums up her role this way: “Offenders need to understand that you care about their needs and well-being. They also need to understand that you are not going to tolerate illegal behavior. I’m tough but fair. I’m here to listen and I’m here to assist, but I’m not going to allow them to place themselves, their children and the community at risk. If he cannot get with the program, I’ll send him back to prison. I’ll do everything in my power to make sure that he gets the services and assistance he needs to come to grips with a law-abiding life, but I’ll also do everything in my power to make sure that he doesn’t harm individuals or society.”

The Balance

“Maintaining the balance. That’s the challenge of community supervision,” states John W. Milam, Branch Chief in an area spanning Southeast and Southwest D.C. John is responsible for the supervision of approximately 3,500 parolees and probationers residing east of the Anacostia river.

John, who was born in the District of Columbia (like Joe Austin) reinforces the fact that community supervision of criminal offenders only succeeds if that “magical” balance of supervision and services is in place. John has 17 years of experience supervising offenders. He remembers working with offenders who were employed by his father in the moving business. He remembers that those with a positive outlook and support tended to do well, and those who had poor problem solving skills often failed. “I was curious as to what made some succeed and some fail,” he said. “That’s what got me into this business, my curiosity as to what makes people succeed.”

“I just went to a Mass Orientation of offenders where we assemble those starting their term of parole or probation. We provide an overview of community supervision requirements and available resources and services to make sure that everyone understands what is expected of them and what is available to assist them. I saw an offender that I supervised when I started 17 years ago. Part of the difficulty of this work is experiencing firsthand how difficult it is to assist human beings who struggle with the basics of life. We have to teach offenders how to change their thinking patterns. Some have been so ravaged by drugs and alcohol and a troubled upbringing that they have difficulty deciding what’s right for themselves and their children.”

“That is the challenge-making sure that we have the right balance of supervision and services,” Milam continues. The people who work for me must understand that they have to provide 100 percent effort every day to meet the challenges of the people we supervise. They look to me for leadership, but I look to them for ideas, innovations and strategies. I cannot imagine anything as important for society than what I do for living.”

You Have to Have Plan “B”

Anthony L. Taylor has been in the criminal justice system for a long time. He claims that he “knows when to hold ’em, and when to fold ’em.” Tony came from the military and used the GI bill to pay for the rest of his college education. After leaving the Army, he went to Montana and became a residential life counselor for a college. He also coached the wrestling team.

“As a coach, you’ve got to see things through the eyes of other people,” he said. “You need to have the ability to evaluate potential and talent. A big part of what we do is to evaluate offenders. I’m happy to assist anyone. It’s very rare that I give up. But the challenge of this job is to recognize that somebody is ready to make a change. You have to be ready when they are ready.”

From his college wrestling and coaching job, Tony drifted to the Washington/Baltimore metropolitan area where he became a youth counselor at a juvenile facility in Maryland and an assistant teacher at an alternative school for troubled youth. He’s even spent time as an aviation security specialist. He’s been with CSOSA since September of 2000.

Tony believes that a big part of being successful as a CSO is to have what he calls “Plan B.” “You have to be creative everyday,” he states. When he discovers an offender is ready to make a change, he is relentless in discovering untapped resources. That opportunity for creativity, combined with learning to gauge the offender’s attitude and motivation, he says, makes his job interesting. “We have to make sure that the offender is ready and we have to make sure that we are ready to assist him. But equally important is making sure he doesn’t do something crazy or become a hazard to the community. If we’re really going to serve society, we have to look out for the offender’s best interest while insisting upon public safety. It can’t happen any other way.”

350 CSOs

There are 350 CSOs who work for CSOSA. They supervise approximately 15,500 offenders. On any given day, CSOSA employees are walking the streets of the District of Columbia talking to offenders, their families, friends and employers. Each day hundreds of offenders report to field offices located throughout the city to receive that “magical” balance of supervision and services. Hundreds more are reporting for drug testing and a wide array of treatment and educational programs.

To recognize that Community Supervision Officers are the backbone of the agency is an obvious observation. Working with offenders can be one of the most challenging and rewarding jobs any of us have experienced. To ride with police officers or walk through tough neighborhoods and to deal with people with troubling backgrounds could cause most of us to pause. Community Supervision Officers meet these challenges every day.

Through the efforts of its CSOs, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency is making a positive difference in the District of Columbia. Recidivism for probationers (who constitute 70 percent of intakes) is down from 21 percent arrested in 2002 to 13 percent arrested in 2004. Please note that the combined rate for probationers and parolees remains flat at 18 percent during the same time period. Reincarcerations, revocations and drug use have all decreased. Homicides and violence have significantly declined in the city since 2002. While the lion’s share of the credit must go to the employees of the Metropolitan Police Department, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and engaged citizen based organizations, the women and men of CCOSA feel that they have made significant contributions to public safety

CSOs are the hub of a wheel in which law enforcement, community organizations and social service agencies collaborate to provide both supervision of, and opportunity for, the individuals placed under CSOSA’s jurisdiction. The citizens of the District of Columbia benefit from their dedication.

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