County invests big despite slimmed down Justice Reinvestment budget

September 24, 2015

The Department of Community Justice client Carey Markwell pumps his fist in recognition of his accomplishments during his first 120 days in the Multnomah County Justice Reinvestment Program.

Multnomah County will launch a program next month to prepare jail inmates for drug and alcohol treatment as part of its effort to reduce the number of offenders sent to prison.

Drug and alcohol treatment readiness is part of Multnomah County’s Justice Reinvestment program, the county’s response to a statewide effort to reform offenders, keep the public safe and save taxpayer money. Those savings from costly prison stays can go back into programs that build stronger communities, such as addiction treatment.

The county was slated to receive $6 million from the state for the 2016 fiscal year as part of HB3194 or the state's Justice Reinvestment program but was forced to cut that by a third after the Legislature finalized the state budget.

The Multnomah County Justice Reinvestment program is a collaborative effort that brings together sheriff’s office staff, parole and probation officers, addiction treatment and social service providers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and victim advocates.

“The mere fact that all these major players have come together and are getting down to brass tacks about what changes are needed, we can really feel a sense of pride that we’re out front on this,” said Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury during a board briefing on Tuesday. “I’m really excited about the treatment readiness piece, it’s potentially a real missing piece in the investments we’re making in treatment, if people aren’t ready to participate.”

Justice Reinvestment has given prosecutors an alternative to recommending prison. Prosecutors identify people eligible for the program. After that, a probation officer meets with individuals to assess their risk of reoffending, assess their criminal history and identify any support they might already have in the community.   

That assessment is given to the judge, prosecutor and defense and used to determine who is a good fit for the program.

Identified participants undergo at least 120 days of intensive supervision and customized treatment and services before being re-assessed for a more standard plan. During those first four months a probation officer helps them secure housing, enroll in parenting classes, find a job or job skills courses,and enter addiction/mental health treatment.

“This system has shown tremendous promise,” said David VanSpeybroeck, a member of the Multnomah County Justice Reinvestment Program Steering Committee. “Instead of people coming out of corrections or jail bitter, with no skills, we have people who have a job, a place to live and skills that hopefully will allow them to change their lives.”

Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill said his office has identified more than 1,000 defendants who could be eligible to serve their sentences in the community. Because of the program, they estimate only 25 percent of those defendants will be sentenced to prison.

Justice Reinvestment program graduate hugs a service provider during a March graduation ceremony.

“That’s significant progress,” Underhill said. Before the program launched last year, his office was sending about 55 percent of defendants facing drug- or property-crime cases to prison.

“Is this program working?” he asked. “The simple answer is yes.”

The county’s $4 million budget also includes victim’s services and treatment programs for child witnesses of violence, immigrant victims of crimes, victims of color, and legal support for victims of domestic violence.

Roughly $400,000 will go to local nonprofits for services for victims. Impact NW will work with children who have witnessed domestic violence. Lutheran Community Services NW will work with immigrant victims of crime and victims in communities of color, and The Oregon Crime Victims Law Center will provide victims with legal services in English and Spanish.

The budget allocates nearly $300,000 for treatment readiness to prepare offenders who must transition from jail to court-mandated addiction treatment programs.

“There’s been lots of talk about how can we make people more successful in treatment,” said Multnomah County Sheriff Chief Deputy Linda Yankee. Some inmates are not ready to go to treatment, and don’t finish the programs. This program will help these inmates engage and stay in treatment.

The jail has set aside a dorm at the Inverness jail where inmates can work with treatment providers from the community.

“The best thing I see is this model allows offenders to meet with treatment providers,” Yankee said, “to connect with a person. So they know someone will be there to pick them up.”

Commissioner Loretta Smith lamented the lack of housing for offenders leaving jail or prison.  “It’s so tough, we’re talking about a population that’s underserved,” she said. “They aren’t going to be on top of anyone’s list of getting housing. We need to do more to help.”

Commissioner Judy Shiprack agreed that the Multnomah County Justice Reinvestment Program team was faced with tough choices about where to invest.

“You had to prioritize in a landscape of shortfall,” she said to Justice Reinvestment team. “I’m pleased with the work you’ve done. It’s a tremendous opportunity to make a really important change.”