STAND UP

Bruce Gibson, Director of Probation for Clermont County, Ohio, Courthouse
Part I I

 

 


by Brad Gibson

July 2009

 

We’ve already touched on this, but just to face it directly: jail overcrowding has reached an all-time high in U.S. history. As Director of Probation are you dealing with needs in your position that are a result of overcrowding?

Yes. I’m constantly aware of the jail and prison population. That’s just a reality. Like most counties, Clermont County has a problem with a jail overcrowding population.

It’s really ironic. We have a jail that just closed down 35 beds because of the budget crisis, and yet we have a waiting list for people to call in and get in to the facility. At one time we had almost a waiting list of 400 people who had to call or try to get in everyday, and we had to tell them they can’t come in.

As far as probation being a diversion from jail or an alternative, we are constantly being asked to consider what we can do to further decrease the jail population. Some of things we’ve done are hire two, fulltime probation officers. We call pre-trial unit managers now; they do what we call “reporting bond” to help people establish that they can be out of jail if, when awaiting their trial or hearing, they report to our probation department. We’ve never had that position and about three years we ago we started it. It’s had a major impact.

At any given time we have about 70-90 people reporting to that program and we like to think that, if it were not for that program, at least some large percentage of those people would be in jail. So, that’s the kind of thing as a probation department we are trying to do.

Your work with prisons has intensified, too?

Yes. The other part is the prisons. They are obviously my problem because I receive about $280,000 from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections every year to hire three or four officers and maintain programs to keep people out of prison. Again, the theory is that, if not for those programs, those individuals would in fact be sentenced to some prison time.

We do intensive supervision, where we supervise them very closely. Also, in our department, we have a kind of team approach where we have two officers that go out to the field and check on the homes and curfews and go out on the weekends and make sure that people aren’t breaking the terms of their probation.

We have another individual, a co-facilitator, who works with those people in a manner that she meets with them in the office and provides case management services. She does everything, including establishing a case plan of how they can accomplish their goals and mission, and how they are going to accomplish getting off probation. She establishes contact with the treatment community, employment specialists, and she does a lot of things to provide them with opportunities they’ve never had before. Hopefully, some of those opportunities will keep them from committing crimes. That’s the kind of programming we do.

We also receive money from the O.D.R.C. to hire a job specialist who does nothing but try to provide people with employment. Since we know that’s one of what is called a “criminogenic need” that people have. If you can keep people employed and change their associates and their friends, and change their attitude about who they are and how they criminally think, you have a better chance of preventing them from criminal behavior. We figured out that if they work and they like their job and feel positive about these things, they may do better. So, her role has been not only finding employment but finding meaningful employment.

Those are things that we feel people see themselves as having some respect and gaining some attitude changes and adjustments and feel better about themselves. We are hoping those things make an effect. Those are some of the things we do in probation to divert some of these particularly low-end offenders. You have F4’s and F5’s and some of the F3’s. We try to keep them out of prison.

So, the impact individual officials have on offenders or ex-offenders has never been greater, right?

Right. The other thing we do a tremendous amount is what we call the levels of sanctions. We try to divert people as many ways as we can. It’s kind of like a straining theory – strain them out of the system.

We try to do that by giving people opportunities and put them on what we call basic probation. If that doesn’t work then instead of sending them to the prison directly, we’ll put them on intense supervision. If that doesn’t work, we may place them in a community-based correctional facility which is not prison. It’s in the community but it’s also apart of probation. We have officers working very closing in that facility and they’ll be there for several months depending on their sentence. But, we continue to try to work the levels of intervention and knowing that we don’t want to send people to prison unless we have to. But, I feel very comfortable in saying that if someone goes to prison from our department, probation will offer them with as many services as we can and they will have to earn their way to prison.

It’s constantly on my mind, and certainly it’s a role of our department, to use as many different roads and avenues as we can to try to divert people from going to prison.

Personally, I’m a big believer in that people are better off if they never have to go to prison. It’s bad enough to have a felon offense, but once one is incarcerated, his or her opportunities and ability to function and find employment – doing the things that help people be successful - become more challenging.

What are you seeing in the future of probation – even in inmate re-entry – that is inevitably going to have to be addressed?

I think two major things are going to happen in probation. The first thing is that we are going to have more technology. I think it is going to make us better at catching people. And that’s just one of those things, a part of what we do – we don’t want to leave the people at bay. The better we are at providing monitoring surveillance devices that are good for keeping people out of jail and prisons, then judges can put people on – for lack of a better word – home incarceration. We know where they are. We can have sex offenders where we feel more assured that there will be no victim, because we can put a Global Positioning System device on them and have tight surveillance. Those are comfort abilities that judges are going to want. They can tell voting people that we do what we can to provide safety when they run for office.

And the other thing is?

Research. We finally have enough analysis research where we know that punishment isn’t the only thing that works. Punishing “smarter” is not an effective long term solution. It’s a short term solution for a long term problem.

The concern we are looking at now is, “How can we get people to change their criminal thinking?” How can we get people to address some of these evidence-based criminogenic needs? Probation must be outcome-based. We have to ask, “What works? What is going to reduce recidivism?”

I think we have enough research to know that what is going to work are the things that are more hands-on – case management type services, or doing motivational interviewing. Finding ways to get people to understand and come to grips with their irrational processing of information and thinking. Teaching individuals new skills, new life skills. Getting people over obstacles. Finding people meaningful employment. Helping people make adjustments in their lives. Teaching simple social skills.

We’ve actually gone to the length where we have committed enough money to send people to vocational schools. We had six men this year earn certificates in welding. Now, they are working as welders and making good money. Their whole lives have changed. At least their career lives and how they see themselves have changed.

I think the biggest change in probation is going to be technology, on one end, which provides security and safety. On the other hand, what’s going to help this individual become more productive and less a criminal-minded? They use techniques and programs that we know work. It’s come to a point where we aren’t guessing as much as we used to.

When I started in juvenile probation, I used to laugh. I’d say, “What do I do next?” Nobody knew the answer. They would tell me everything from “use your guts” to “guess.” Now, we have assessment tools and series of information which show that certain individuals have certain thinking errors and patterns of thinking. There are ways to deal with and address these patterns. From setting up case plans to getting people involved, to family involvement and community involvement. 

What do you see in the future for re-entry?

The re-entry process is probably going to be the biggest movement in the prison part of corrections. The movement is nothing new, but certainly in the past five years, re-entry research – we used to call reintegration into the community – is telling us important things.

The University of Cincinnati (Ohio) has done some good work in measuring how prepared people are for succeeding when they come out of incarceration. Re-entry has made us aware that this whole concept of aftercare is critical– even if you have some treatment in the prison, which there is not lot but they try – particularly drug and alcohol treatment and other means of intervention.

When one comes out of incarceration, it is such a big leap from being locked up. You have been so isolated that just walking down the street again is huge. We need to prepare people for that adjustment. Small things from family reunification to providing contact with religious services, jobs, schools – all these things can make a big difference. So, I think this re-entry concept is going to be a key to our long term success and to prison system changes.

Unfortunately, and I say this sadly – the real concern is with our budget cuts. I just had some discussions with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (O.D.R.C.). The department is cutting 500 staff members in the next two or three months. That means the department needs to look at all positions in the prison system. Some of these positions may mean that re-entry programs and initiatives could become secondary and thus be cut.

That is certainly not good news. In Ohio, we were starting to see some real effort and some big changes for males and females. I just read that California has reinstituted its re-entry programs, even though departments have faced some major cuts in the past few years. But, despite the cuts, they feel that some of these programs are going to be the only thing that is going to save that system. It may be a sign that Ohio will see it as well. They will see that you can’t cut that reentry.

You mentioned you were starting to notice some changes in Ohio before the budget cuts. Can you describe what those changes were?

The prisons have always had a problem keeping balance of the security of the facility and maintaining some intervention services that can have some impact. They cut 400 positions at the beginning of this year and at the end of last year. I think what they are finding is that the prisons are able to operate with less staff. But the question becomes, “Are they going to be effective in what we want to have - a long term solution of preventing recidivism?”

I think prisons were just getting to that point in the last 10 years or so – and I think we are seeing that in Ohio and across the country – prisons want to be more involved with the intervention and treatment of offenders.

Traditionally, prisons were just for warehousing people. I am very familiar with Ohio’s system. They implemented a lot of substance abuse programs for offenders; they had a therapeutic community in Mansfield (Ohio) for female offenders which was a pretty progressive program and starting to have some long term results. I think they wanted to model this program across the state. But, with budget cuts, these programs won’t be able to start up now.

Perhaps we should do what the state of California did and say, “You know what? We just have to find the money for and maintain the program.”

With overcrowding, are things so problematic now that they can’t be resolved? Is there any hope for the issue of overcrowding?

I do think there are some answers to overcrowding, and some of them aren’t so popular. The key is to have people incarcerated who really need to be there.

I know there are a lot of special interest groups that want to have people punished for different laws and violations, and they want them punished to the max, or as severely as they can. And certainly prison has been our alternative.

I think in our society we used to do things like cut off fingers and put people in stocks, whip, and do some pretty barbaric things. Once the Quakers figured out that it was better to incarcerate people, then incarceration became our solution. It has seemed our only solution.

What we need to do now is assess who needs to be incarcerated, and what other options are going to be more productive and less expensive at solving certain issues. Prison is very expensive. It typically costs about $25,000 a year to house an inmate. If you think in terms of that kind of money, I think we can find better solutions.

I certainly think our prison population in Ohio has 40 to 50 percent inside for a drug or illegal substance offense and another 20-30 percent inside for some addiction problem. Maybe there is a better way at handling offenders as long as they are not violent or what I call criminal thinkers. They are just people who have put themselves in a position of being addicted to particular drugs, and they’ve done some pretty high risk things to continue it.

Unfortunately, that’s a sad scenario because people don’t understand how easily it can happen. But, it doesn’t necessarily mean these individuals are criminals. They are people with an addiction problem. They need to deal with recovery. Maybe there is another way to deal with them. I think it’s probably going to be the first target to reducing overcrowding of prisons.

We have to get a typology of who is incarcerated, why they are incarcerated, and the length of their sentence. Then, the solution is, what else can we do with them? I think we are going to see some suggestions from people that might mean we revamp our system – revamp the criminal justice system, maybe revise the legal system – look at the laws. Look at whether or not there is such a magnitude of a legal system that is just creating a society of criminals, or at least a society of criminals larger than what we need. Maybe we need to rethink criminal law in terms of asking if it is really consistent with what we want to happen to those offenders.

The other issue is: what happens with people who just refuse to obey the rules? Do we go along with the rules and probation and the laws? There may be ideas that we just haven’t thought of. 

I would like to think that, in the state we’re in with regard to the economy, there will be some think tanks out there that will determine that, yes, government needs to build a better system to deal with this overcrowding problem.

You mentioned “think tanks.” Do these think tanks actually exist in which people are trying to solve this problem?

Yes, they exist. Think tanks. I belong to the American Probation Parole Association. There have been several groups that have tried to solve overcrowding over the past fifteen years. I’m familiar with a group that in New York that published the “white paper.”

The white paper addresses this issue: “Are we on a mission where we are just going to end up where we are, or is there another way to go [regarding incarceration, parole, and probation]?” They were advocating some of the things that I’ve already talked about. That is, get people early in the system before they become “serious criminal thinkers” and try to get them treatment so that they don’t get in the position of having to be sent to prison.

They have come up with some other ideas that I think are pretty progressive. They came up with the notion, for example, what can you do in a high crime area to help people avoid getting involved with criminal activity? They refer to this as the “Broken Windows Theory”. That is, if a group goes in and cleans up neighborhoods and fixes windows and doors, then people will feel better about themselves, and become more optimistic. You are dealing on a larger scale. It really becomes society’s issue. You address what is the evil in society and maybe the evil in the person will go away.

So, yeah, there are think tanks and groups that have tackled some of those problems, and they continue to address the reality that prisons are not the end-all solution to dealing with our criminal behavior.

What exactly has contributed to the evil of society?

I think our evil society consists of everything from unequal justice and selected enforcement to even our school systems. There is a great example. Educators did a study a number of years ago in Michigan where they looked at two school systems. One school system was pretty much an upper class school and the other system was urban, an inner city system.

They took all the schools’ A students and gave them college entrance exams. The A students in the upper class schools scored exceptionally higher than the A students in the inner city schools. The inner city school students didn’t have as many resources or competent teachers, and the officials said, “How can they both be A students?” The answer was clear. In the inner city schools, if you pretty much came to school everyday, did your homework, and shut your mouth, you received an A grade.

What that meant was that, as a school system, schools were treating those kids unfairly. That’s an evil of our school systems. You set those kids out to compete and say, “You are A students. Now, go to college and do well.” And they didn’t do well. You have to provide the same opportunity for all those students if you really want to see a large scale change. But, to me, that’s a society evil created as part of a system that affects those who are criminals.

We know that people who do well academically and go further on in their education tend to do well. But, if you don’t provide people with the same opportunity, they aren’t going to be able to compete. I just think that, with these kinds of evil, we can say, “We must recognize these inequalities.” Clean up the windows. Clean up the public school system. Create more opportunities, better neighborhoods. These positives are proven to have some impact. The community has to be a part of the solution.

The criminal justice system alone can only do so much. When you get the criminal justice system involved with the community, there is a positive outcome. The community becomes part of the answer. It does not just set up watch groups. It fosters a “lets-go-into-those-inner-city-schools, let’s-go-and-see.” It’s a long term goal, but I think there are places in the country doing these things and making adjustments.

 

 

 

 

 

Bruce Gibson

Bruce Gibson

 

 

Brad Gibson

Bruce Gibson's son and RED! contributing writer, Brad Gibson.