California is in the midst of one of the largest-ever shifts in American criminal justice. As the most populous state in the country with the world’s highest incarceration rate, California has embarked on a federally mandated mission to reduce its number of prisoners behind bars. Under realignment legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011, convicted nonviolent offenders became the responsibility of county jails, not state prisons. That has put enormous pressure on counties to either absorb all those offenders or get smarter about reducing crime.
No county’s effort has been smarter than San Francisco’s, led by Chief Adult Probation Officer Wendy Still. A criminologist with nearly 40 years of experience working in California’s prison system, Still took charge of San Francisco’s adult probation services in 2010. Under her leadership, the department has shifted its focus from surveillance to rehabilitation, with an emphasis on better reintegrating offenders once they’re released, and working to help prevent future criminal behavior.
Part of her work resulted in the “re-entry pod,” which opened last year. Housed in one wing of a county jail, the pod connects soon-to-be-paroled offenders with a host of services designed to ease their re-entry into the community, things like substance abuse treatment, mental health services, parenting classes, and help with finding housing and employment. Those resources are still available for offenders even after they’ve been released.
The department has also worked with judges on the front end of sentencing, helping place offenders in treatment programs or other facilities that are more likely to encourage rehabilitation rather than recidivism. For instance, county judges may now place convicted mothers in a facility that allows their children to live with them while they serve their sentence; studies show that children can be a positive motivator for offenders trying to rehabilitate.
The results have been remarkable. The percentage of people who successfully complete probation has steadily increased over the past few years, reaching 80 percent by 2013. The number of active probation cases dropped at least 25 percent. The average daily jail population went down, too, by 35 percent -- even as the county was forced to take on more prisoners under realignment. With fewer inmates in the system, the county estimates it’s saving more than $35 million a year. The program has earned statewide attention and national accolades.
San Francisco’s parole system has transitioned from a punitive approach to a supportive one. For Still, who is retiring at the end of this year, that’s made all the difference. “I wake up happy to come to work every day,” she says. “I have the greatest mission: to help people to change their lives. That’s a gift.” -- By J.B. Wogan
Read about the rest of the Public Officials of the Year here.