By Shannon Pieper
It’s a familiar situation across the U.S.: The county jail is overcrowded, resulting in skyrocketing costs; despite their best intentions, corrections officers know when they release an inmate, they are likely to see them behind bars again.
Faced with just this situation, the Eau Claire (WI) Sheriff’s Office (ECSO) decided to take action. At IACP 2016, Capt. Dan Bresina shared the agency’s unique approach—one that is rooted in evidence-based decision making and, more importantly, is working.
The ECSO’s approach is built on what it calls the Proxy Form. Capt. Bresina says the form has two purposes: the chief purpose is to help officers make decisions about whether to arrest. But because the form stays with an offender as they move through the system, the data collected will continue to provide direction for the agency as it continues to refine its processes.
Here’s how it works: Officers in contact with offenders who face potential arrest ask the offender three simple questions:
• Age at first arrest
• # of arrests as an adult
The officers enter this information onto the Proxy Form, which scores the person as low, medium or high risk based on their answers. Although officers always have discretion to arrest, this process is meant to encourage them to consider alternatives to arrest when dealing with low-risk offenders. If the officer chooses not to arrest, one option is a pre-charge diversion program, which includes education and payment of a fee, among other things.
“Low-risk individuals tend to be self-correcting,” Capt. Bresina says. But an arrest can disrupt that self-correcting process because it “may interfere with internal controls or positive family and social settings which result in self-correction.” Jailing low-risk offenders also often puts them in contact with offenders who present higher levels of risk, which can further have a negative influence. The pre-charge diversion program attempts to capitalize on the positive influences in the low-risk offender’s life.
In rolling out the program, the ECSO spent a lot of time training its staff, especially supervisors. “We trained supervisors first because they are the ones who will make this stick,” Capt. Bresina says. “This is really a cultural change. We continue to survey the officers about the process, and that feedback has resulted in some changes to the form.” The SO also underscores the importance of the Proxy Form with recruits. “We sit down and spend 30 minutes with every new officer, going over how to fill out the Proxy and why we do it,” Bresina says.
Four years into the program, ECSO has the data to show it’s working. Since 2012, 1,072 participants have completed pre-charge diversion. The ECSO found that “the risk of re-offense nearly doubled when offenders did not complete the Diversion Program and are instead formally charged. The estimated risk of reoffending is 95% higher for low-risk offenders who do not participate in the program,” Bresina notes. The agency has also collected nearly $26,000 in restitution through the program.
“This is not a ‘hug-a-thug’ program,” Capt. Bresina says. “We’re getting smarter on crime.” But, he admits, it’s also counterintuitive to what he was taught as a street cop. “We’re trying to solve problems, but we didn’t know the outcome of our actions until we started to track it. This program creates one less victim by slowing down our arrest decisions and using pre-charge diversion.”
Shannon Pieper is director of Marketing Communications for Lexipol.