Probation violations will result in 'swift and certain' penalties

Officials hope short, immediate jail terms will save money, help offenders

By Paul Suarez, Columbian freelance

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Officials say a new Department of Corrections system should help offenders on probation be more successful and will save money.

The system uses "swift and certain" sanctions for those who violate terms of their probation, meaning immediate but short trips to jail.

In the past, corrections officers had few options when dealing with violations. Now state law says minor violations — including failing drug tests, not reporting to officers or not going to treatment — will send offenders to jail for one to three days. After that, violations will be handled like they were in the past, with the possibility of more jail time.

Officials say the update should save the Department of Corrections money and will help shape offenders' behavior to be more compliant and ultimately successful.

"The more people can predict the consequences of their actions, the more quickly they follow the rules of their probation," said Selena Davis, DOC spokeswoman.

Shorter time in jail also means offenders can keep their jobs and housing while in jail.

"If you put (offenders) in for long periods of time, you can destabilize them," said Gelinda Amell, who supervises corrections officers from the west Vancouver DOC office. Officers try to help offenders be successful in their release, she said.

Clark County Jail Chief Jackie Webster says the changes could take an estimated $2 million of revenue out of the jail per year. She's not sure what that will mean for her facility.

"We knew (DOC has) taken some severe cuts, so we knew that would make some impacts to whoever deals with (it)," she said.

At this point, she'd rather have the revenue than DOC inmates in jail for shorter periods of time.

Washington's law is based on Hawaii's project HOPE that uses similar method of "swift and certain" punishment, corrections spokeswoman Davis said.

According to a report published by the Pew Center on the States, people on probation in Hawaii's program were "55 percent less likely to be arrested for a new crime, 72 percent less likely to use drugs, 61 percent less likely to skip appointments with their supervisory officer and 53 percent less likely to have their probation revoked."

They also averaged 48 percent fewer days in jail than the control group in the one-year Pew trial.

The change is designed to try to shape offenders' behavior while they transition to life back in society.

Washington's law officially takes effect statewide on June 1. Department of Corrections officers in east Vancouver have been testing the system since April, and west Vancouver officers started the program last week.

Amell said its still pretty early for statistics, but east Vancouver DOC officers are seeing a few "swift and certain" sanctions.

Officer Beth Graves said most offenders she works with already knew about the upcoming changes in early May and were "OK with it."

"They understand next time any violation is a one- to three-day arrest," she said. In the past, some offenders thought they could talk their way into work crew or treatment instead of jail, she said.

Earlier this month, Graves and officer Jennifer Thomas spent a morning attempting to contact offenders to tell them about the changes.

They parked an unmarked SUV behind a single-story apartment complex off Mill Plain Boulevard. The two, wearing bulletproof vests and pistols on belt holsters, got out of the car, walked around to the front of a brick building and knocked on a door.

A few seconds later a man, Jason Wilen, answered the door while talking on the phone. He told the voice on the other side of the line he'd have to call back.

Thomas chatted with Wilen, who is on probation after a robbery conviction, to see how he was doing before telling him about the changes.

"That's nothing new, is it?" he asked. "It's about the same as it used to be."

Thomas went over specifics and had Wilen sign a piece of paper.

Graves said she tells people, "I want you to understand you can't talk me out of this," while going over the update. She thinks it will take the emotion out of the punishment and hopefully make people take responsibility for their actions instead of blaming the officer.

Not everyone got the news.

At an earlier stop, Graves and Thomas didn't find the man they were looking for. They got information that one offender was allegedly using drugs and wasn't living where he was supposed to. The two said they would issue a warrant for his arrest.