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Arizona has saved millions of dollars by keeping people out of prison since it introduced a more rigorous adult probation program 10 years ago. With classes that help people on probation create goals and learn coping skills, violations have declined by 29 percent. NewsHour Weekend’s Christopher Booker talks to some of the people who have benefited from the overhaul.
There are approximately four and a half million Americans on probation or parole – that's a nearly four times what it was in 1980. But how effective is the system at keeping people from reoffending and ending up back behind bars?
For the past decade, Arizona's adult probation department has been quietly changing the way it does business, engaging with offenders in surprising ways, and the approaches are yielding results. NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker reports.
Watching Douglas Minkner with his 7-month old son, makes it hard to picture his past.
"there you go…Drink"
I started smoking heavy in the seventh grade and every single day I was going to school high.
The son of a police officer, Minkner has a long track record with addiction. His drug use started with marijuana in elementary school. Then came ecstasy and cocaine as a high school freshman, and finally crystal methamphetamine and heroin.
I just didn't wanna stop. I wanted to do that every single day of my life. That's where my trouble began.
And the "trouble" was criminal, including breaking-and-entering, burglary, and narcotics possession.
Racking up 9 felonies by the time he was 20, he spent most of his days either behind bars or on probation.
Back when I was younger on probation when I was in high school it was just es– essentially, "did he test today? Did he collect– test clean? Did he do his community service?" That's it. It was almost just like a– nagging parent, where somebody was just like, "hey, you know what you're supposed to be doing. Why aren't you doing it? Okay, you're not gonna do it? Jail."
But recently things have improved, he just celebrated one year sober. The person he credits is his probation officer, kelli Watson.
Addiction is difficult to deal with. if– if you lock them away, they may be sober for the amount of time they're locked away. But as soon as they get out, they come right back to where they are. Now I try and find a good balance between holding them accountable but also understanding that we're all human beings
Because arizona considers Minkner a high risk individual, Watson supervises him under what the state calls Intensive Probation Supervision, or IPS. It's part of an innovative overhaul of the system that involves fitting the right kind of probation to the right person.
All right you can stop right there. All are zeros, so thanks so much, negative for alcohol.
You know, obviously probation isn't something that you Wanna be on. It's not something that you enjoy being on.
IPS means Minkner lives under house arrest. And Watson must approve every hour of his day. That includes treatment, group therapy, his work schedule – even time just watching his son.
If he runs out of diapers and needs to go to the store, he must ask Watson for permission.
Had you been on probation in the way you're on probation now as a young person, your path may have gone in a different direction?
Absolutely. 110% In my opinion. I would have gotten the help that I needed. I woulda had a positive relationship with an actual public figure that is wanting to make a change and a difference in peoples' lives. And who knows where that would have actually led me?
One year sober.
That's a long time Douglas.
it's the longest i've pulled in all 26 years of this life of mine. Plus having you guys on my side as well. You know doing these check ins at first I gotta admit they were really kind of like a pain to get acclimated to you and get used to you it's like ahhh…. Here they are again at my door… but I mean it's different now
How do you view Kelly? Who is she to you?
So kelly to me, I would honestly say, is somebody that I can go to if I need help, if I'm struggling and she has the resources to be able to give to me so I can get my problem resolved.
The nature of the relationship between Minkner and officer Watson is not accidental. Rather, it's a reflection of a radical retooling of arizona's adult probation department that was rolled out state wide in 2008.
Between 2008 and 2016 there was a 29% decline in probation violations, and a 21% decline in arrests of people on probation. That translates to fewer people behind bars.
And because it costs just over $66 per day to keep someone in prison , and less than twenty two dollars to put them on probation, Arizona says it has saved more than $461 million dollars since 2009.
I think the– the easiest way to explain it is we weren't being very successful.
Barbara broderick has been spearheading arizona's changes in adult probation since 2004.
People weren't changing, they weren't succeeding, they were failing at a great rate. Sitting down with officers, people were getting– kind of– "we're hitting our head against the wall. What can we do differently– that would really make a difference in people's lives?"
What followed was a fundamental shift in the way arizona approached probation.
They began, says broderick, by personalizing their dealings with each probationer, learning the details of their lives, and the patterns of their negative behavior.
The department works to change those patterns by providing classes that help them create goals and learn coping skills. The idea is to get to the bottom of what is driving the criminal behavior.
They also reduced the number of cases for officers like Kelli Watson, so they can spend more time with offenders on IPS.
So the sorting of people really gave us the ability– to basically spend more time with the more difficult– the medium to high-risk individuals and less time with the low-risk individuals.
Scott Gibson is what's called a standard probation officer. That means the majority of offenders he oversees are lower risk than officer Watson and he sees more of them.
That doesn't mean they aren't required to check in with him once a month, attend group therapy and perform community service.
And like Watson, Gibson has been specially trained to know the details of each of their stories.
If building– a rapport with somebody– and– and letting them know that you're really trying to help them is what works and then, then that's huge.
But Arizona is not just trying to change the way offenders think and act. It's trying to do the same with probation officers.
The officers meet regularly to discuss what's working with their cases, what's not, and how they might be able to improve outcomes.
So these two types of interventions are most effective in changing offender behavior over the long term.
If we can help one person not reoffend in the future that's one less person committing a crime in the future. If this is what works, this is what we've been shown to work– why not do it? You know, why not take that approach?
If this is what works, this is what we've been shown to work– why not do it?
But what happens with the toughest of cases?
Kristin Patrick is a three-time felon, a crystal meth addict who relapsed just 6 weeks ago while under officer kelli watson's supervision.
Lets do a walk through.
In Arizona, a state that has mandatory minimum sentences, that has traditionally put a person right back in jail.
Lets do quick breathalizer
I've never not been arrested for screwing up. It is kind of like clockwork for me. I just expected that. I was blown away when she walked away and I wasn't in the back of her car or something you know. And then I sat there all night thinking should I run I run but I didn't.
Why did you decide not to run?
Because of the way Kelly handled it. I've done this so many times. Like, why can't I just get it right?" And it's so frustrating, I was just like, she didnt say, im going to jail. My main goal right now, is to stay out of jail. Like, so I can be a part of my kids' lives, regardless of what that looks like. And because she didn't arrest me, I did the thinking– tool that she's started to push on me, and I implemented it. And I didn't run because of it, so.
In this situation whats a new thought you could of had?
I dont reach out enough, i need to start doing that because obviously what i have done in the past wasnt working.
Write it down, that is good.
I've done several of these acLtivities, and I've actually caught myself in the middle of, like, implementing it. So, I know that it's working, you know what I mean? Like– the thoughts that come into my head are different.
I hope she feels that I do have her best interest in mind. And that I'm not here to lock her up and– and throw away the key. And as long as she's willing to work on herself, I'm willing to work with her too.
Watch the Full Episode
Melanie Saltzman reports, shoots and produces stories for PBS NewsHour Weekend on a wide range of issues including public health, the environment and international affairs. In 2017 she produced two stories for NewsHour’s “America Addicted” series on the opioid epidemic, traveled to the Marshall Islands to report on climate change, and went to Kenya and Tanzania to focus on solutions-based reporting. Melanie holds a BA from New York University and an MA in Journalism from Northwestern University, where she was a McCormick National Security Fellow. In 2010, she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship in Berlin, Germany.
Christopher Booker is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend covering music, culture, our changing economy and news of the cool and weird. He also teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, following his work with Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in Chicago and Doha, Qatar.
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