Sacramento County Probation Department's redemption

New philosophy drives embattled agency's image makeover

DeWane Law (left) and his probation officer Travis Braden are enjoying new successes after difficult stretches for both local offenders and the people supervising them.

DeWane Law (left) and his probation officer Travis Braden are enjoying new successes after difficult stretches for both local offenders and the people supervising them.


DeWane Law slides into a weathered red booth on a canopied patio just outside the north Sacramento diner where his wife works. The 42-year-old, with bushy brown hair and the rubbery crags of a recovering addict, is bundled in a jacket that swallows his ropy torso.

The previous week, just down the street at one of the Sacramento County Probation Department’s Adult Day Reporting Centers, Law was one of 50 people feted for earning his GED certificate and completing an offender-rehabilitation program. Relatively soon, he will begin training with the U.S. Forest Service to become a firefighter, a passion he discovered while chasing 30-foot flames up rugged mountains in a state prison conservation camp several months ago.

“I can’t wait,” Law enthused. “I’m one of those people who, when I’m learning, I’m excited.”

The chatty father of five vividly recalls the first time he informed his probation officer of his newfound career plans. “You might say he was skeptical of my intentions,” Law cracked. “I told him, ’You don’t understand. This is different for me. I am never, ever going back to that.’”

In the not-so-old days, a jaded P.O. might have dismissed such assurances from a repeat offender like Law. Instead, Law said that Sacramento County probation officer Travis Braden helped him square his post-custody requirements with a busy community-college schedule. On January 30—before a crowded room of graduates and their whooping supporters—Braden did something else unheard of for law enforcement: He admitted he was wrong.

Welcome to the new and improving probation department. For decades, the law-enforcement agency’s practice of violating offenders for small infractions only worsened local recidivism figures.

Then, local lawsuits and state-prison overcrowding exploded the criminal-justice landscape and forced probation to look into the abyss. Twenty-eight months later, the department has embraced two sea-changing epiphanies: Not only can criminals change, but so can it.

Identity crises

On the surface, Law the criminal and Braden the officer have little in common. But, in reality, they represent flip sides of a coin that’s in the same criminal-justice jackpot. And both need each other to claw out of it.

Like Law, a convicted methamphetamine trafficker taking his umpteenth whack at a straight life, Sacramento’s probation department has endured its own crucible of missteps, controversies and doubters: Reeling from years of declining budgets and nasty internal politics, a massive “realignment” of state prisoners to local counties in October 2011 only magnified the department’s struggles.

Former probation chiefs waged public disputes with the sheriff and county supervisors over control of a local corrections panel. Internally, the department was riven by unpopular administrations that preferred “management by fear,” said Greg Stuber, president of the Sacramento County Probation Association. And the department endured mounting criticism for using its share of state realignment funding on staffing its three reporting centers—billed as resource-heavy hubs for offenders—with ill-equipped employees instead of community providers with evidence-based curricula.

“The early iteration of the [reporting centers] were largely staffed by our own people,” acknowledged Lee Seale, chief probation officer of Sacramento County. “It was a little like a restaurant on opening night. The intentions were there, but—”

Among the department’s most vocal critics were the founders of Ascend, a criminal-rehabilitation program with low recidivism figures and widespread political support.

“This time last year, we couldn’t get a meeting,” Ascend co-founder Christine Morse Galves told SN&R.

But now, Ascend has its own offender program at the reporting center on Florin Perkins Road.

So, what happened?

Carrots, not sticks

A needed “cultural change,” in the words of Michael Bays, the adult-probation division chief. For Bays, Seale and their upper-management colleagues, that meant first breaking through their own cynicism when it came to repeat offenders like Law.

“Changing lives is hard,” Seale told SN&R. “It’s much easier to put people behind bars and forget about them.”

Eight months ago, that rap about changing cultures and lives was little more than politically correct lip service. That was before Seale, a state corrections official with no past probation experience, was appointed to the county department over Suzanne Collins, a two-time interim chief opposed by her union. The relatively young Seale quickly set about overhauling probation’s negative public image, rebuilding fractured alliances with fellow law-enforcement leaders and reaching out to onetime opponents like Ascend.

Seale also improved relations with front-line staff, according to Stuber. So far, the new chief has kept his word to reward “the best idea, regardless of rank,” Stuber said.

That inside-outside approach seems to be helping staff buy into a more progressive role that emphasizes social work over probation raids.

Much of that work occurs at the department’s three reporting centers, once derided for being shells inside which little aid was offered. A total of 2,020 clients have passed through the centers. While only 289 have graduated programs, most of those occurred in the past year. Officials say it took time to build the necessary programs and staff the centers with case managers and other outside-service providers.

During a recent tour of the center on Del Paso Boulevard, probation brass cheerfully talked up efforts that have nothing to do with badges or handcuffs. Bays, an admitted student of the hook-’em-and-book-’em school of law enforcement, said a new contract with Northern California Construction Training had already landed two probationers high-paying union jobs. Bays is also looking to help offenders get their suspended driver’s licenses back so they can get to school, work and counseling without breaking the law.

“It used to be, if you committed a technical violation, you’d go to jail. There was no other option,” Bays said. The challenge now, he added, is to figure out, “How can you address the [negative] behaviors without destroying what they built up?”

Fates interwined

Inside a packed gray room, one of Sacramento’s lost causes quoted Drake to explain her phoenixlike rise from the ashes. “Started from the bottom, now we’re here!” Angela Johnson called to her fellow graduates, booming with cheers.

Like many, Johnson was initially reluctant to trust any program or person she encountered through probation. “I thought, ’What does this drug and alcohol lady think she can teach me?’” she sassed.

Johnson skipped class, so her P.O. rewarded her with a five-day “resort” stay at the main jail. Needless to say, Johnson changed her mind. “OK, I guess I am going to do this,” she recounted to a chortling crowd.

Eventually, Johnson said, her counselor and P.O. became confidantes, listening to her relationship problems, calling her on her bullshit and helping her find employment.

“All the work you guys did with me, it will not be in vain,” she vowed. “Because I am forever moving forward.”

Standing beside the door, one of the probation staffers wiped tears.

“I’ve not seen that at probation before,” Morse Galves remarked.

Bays was himself skeptical that probation was the right venue to institute serious life changes in Sacramento’s criminal population. The ceremonies convinced him. “These graduations are probably the most feel-good thing I’ve ever been a part of,” he said.

The ceremonies and the months of work they represent seem to have revived two vastly different, but inextricably linked communities.

“They’ve never been the person to get awarded, to get chosen, to get the recognition. This is it,” Seale said of the graduating probationers.

Morse Galves said the same thing about the probation department.