ICYMI: California Can Rebalance Public Safety with Effective Probation Programs


From the Times of San Diego 

Hope. It speaks to the promise of brighter days ahead. It’s also a word that sometimes seems just out of reach when looking at the trifecta of retail theft, fentanyl, and homelessness epidemics in our communities. These issues not only disrupt our social fabric but also test the resilience of our systems of justice and rehabilitation.

As California debates solutions, discussions often become mired in competing interests rather than focusing on effective responses to voters’ anxieties and the destabilization felt across all communities.

In the state’s well-intentioned efforts to rightly move away from the incarceration-first mindset of the 1990s, we must pause and recognize that in recent years, there has been an over-correction. We must acknowledge where we, as a state, might have lost sight of essential justice elements that ensure freedom, restoration, and safety.

Recent shifts in policy have created an over-correction that has removed many enforceable consequences that help individualize responses to repeat criminal behaviors. For example, policies that have allowed for shortening of probation terms, without being tied to accountability for completing programs like drug treatment, have resulted in less rehabilitation and more repeat criminal behavior. This has inadvertently diminished our ability to uphold stability, order, and community safety, which are fundamental to our society.

When we take away tools to ensure accountability, we are also taking them away from those who need them most — those we supervise who need both opportunity for change and enforceable accountability to reenter our communities safely and successfully. Without a reasonable, balanced, and effective public safety model, our ability to give people pathways to success while protecting communities is hindered and repeat criminal behavior increases.

Hope is not just a feeling; it is an expectation and belief that positive results can be achieved.

We in California’s probation departments are a hopeful lot. We have a long history of supporting balanced reforms and helping those under our supervision receive the support they need while holding them accountable. This balance is what is needed to keep communities safe and reduce repeat criminal behavior.

Over the years, informed by evidence-based research, we have successfully adapted and deployed effective tools and programs. For example, we hold people accountable but also assess the individual to determine the treatment and services they need to be successful in our communities.

Things like mental health services, education, housing, and job training and placement are just as important in our profession to keeping communities safe as are accountability measures like searches, gun seizures, and victim restoration.  

This balanced approach has made a significant difference and will continue to, as effective re-entry programs will be essential with the upcoming closure of two state prisons. Our approach has provided help to and supported change in the people we supervise, in addition to benefiting the safety and wellness of our communities.

Improving systems is a core government responsibility, and as professionals on the front lines, we have the expertise to know what works and what needs enhancement.

And we see that now is the time to restore balance.

Voters want effective measures to be put into place for a safer tomorrow. This can only be achieved by reinstating enforceable accountability and a balanced public safety model, along with the tools necessary to tailor responses to criminal behavior appropriately.

Restoring these elements of our societal contract will not only enhance safety, but also restore public confidence and, ultimately, restore hope. We can then ensure that our justice system contributes positively to the fabric of our society, helping those who have strayed find their way back, and making sure that all community members feel secure and optimistic about the future.

Tamika Nelson is the Southern California regional chair and legislative co-chair for the Chief Probation Officers of California.