Judge Baird essentially is undertaking a one-man experiment in stronger probation practices, using probation instead of incarceration for most offenses but intervening more directly in individual cases so probation doesn't become a joke:
Judge Charlie Baird says that for the more than 1,800 people on probation in his court to turn their lives around and stay out of jail, they need a job.
But getting one is not easy for people with criminal records, said Baird, a second-year state district judge in Travis County who thinks, sometimes to the dismay of prosecutors, that probation, and not prison, is appropriate in many cases.
Baird last week began the county's first in-court effort to link people on probation with counselors who could help them find jobs. On Aug. 6, he called to court about 25 people he had previously sentenced to probation and ordered them to meet with City of Austin counselors in rooms adjacent to his courtroom. Most of them had been convicted of drug crimes; none was a violent offender, Baird said.
"The best anti-crime program is a job," Baird said.
When people come before him because of parole violations, he said, "the dominant factor is they don't have steady employment. That leads to depression, drugs, drinking too much, hanging with the wrong crowd."
This blog has long considered finding employment for probationers a huge barrier to reducing crime and recidivism. Indeed, if I had my druthers, employment status of their charges would be a primary outcome measure by which probation officers are evaluated and departments are funded - same goes for parole.
Baird often calls probationers back to court after they have violated the conditions of their probation but rarely sends them to prison. Most violations are minor, such as failing to pay probation fees or meet with a probation officer, he said. He uses those settings to speak with the probationers, asking them about their lives and what they need to be successful. He looks them in the eyes and calls them by name.
He sometimes offers a reward — cutting the term of their probation or the fees they must pay — for successes such as getting a high school equivalency certificate or a job.
He has asked friends if they would be willing to hire ex-offenders. And last year, he began sending a few people from his court to a City of Austin program designed to help people transition out of poverty. The program offers job training and counseling and seeks to solve other problems such as a lack of transportation or presentable clothing.
Martin Harris, director of the federally funded program, offered to take counselors into the courthouse so probationers would associate the program with their sentence and feel compelled to follow through. Baird plans to host counselors and probationers once a month for several months to see if the effort makes a difference.
That said, employment alone is not a silver bullet for every offender, and Travis County has been investing in other evidence based approaches that complement Judge Baird's job hunt.
Here's the Washington State report on recidivism and probation programs (pdf) the article referenced. I was interested to read those statistics and a little surprised the recidivism reduction from employment appears lower than other approaches. But IMO such analysis would be misleading if it caused officials to think finding employment isn't as important as other strategies, because at the end of the day finding and holding a job is the key to stability and normalcy.
Geraldine Nagy, director of the Travis County adult probation department, said employment is "an important piece to the puzzle" and lauded Baird's efforts. She said some of her probation officers are being trained as employment counselors, but her department puts much of its resources toward what she considers the most effective ways of reducing future crime: substance abuse treatment and classes designed to alter anti-social thinking.
A 2006 report by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy says drug treatment reduced by 12.4 percent the recidivism rates of offenders with a history of drug involvement. The report, which combined the results from almost 300 studies done since 1970, says programs designed to alter criminal thinking reduced recidivism rates from 8 percent to 31 percent, depending on the type of offense committed.
Employment training and job assistance for offenders reduced recidivism rates 4.8 percent, "a modest but statistically significantly reduction," the report says.
Here's hoping Judge Baird's employment experiment succeeds swimmingly and that other jurists follow his lead.