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Correctional services consolidation bill drawing fire

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Community corrections advocates are worried that a proposal to consolidate the Marion County probation and community corrections departments would take local decision-making away from community members and give more control to judges.

The fears are fueled by a bill authored by Sen. R. Michael Young, R-Indianapolis. Senate Bill 171 would establish a three-year pilot project to consolidate the operations, funding and staffs of the Marion Superior Court Probation Department and the Marion County Community Corrections Program.
 

white-tess-mug.jpg Young

The unified program would be named the Marion Superior Court Community Supervision Department.

Young pointed to smaller communities around Indiana that have merged their probation and community corrections agencies and said his intent is to see if combining the departments in larger communities will save money and improve efficiencies.

That community corrections representatives have concerns bewilders Young. He emphasized his proposal is not the end but the beginning, and he said he doesn’t know whether the bill even gets through the Statehouse or what it will look like if it does.

However, he said he wants to try to consolidate the departments to determine what works, what doesn’t, and what is the best action to take.

Officials from community corrections programs around the state say they are not opposed to collaborating with probation departments. They are willing to look for new ways to work together and share resources. But they want the community corrections advisory boards to retain the ability to shape and direct the programs that produce positive results in their own municipalities.

“Collaboration is fine, but it should be something that comes from the community,” said Superior Judge Barbara Crawford, the vice chair of the Marion County Community Corrections Programs.

SB 171 would structure the consolidation so that the probation department would be overseeing the community corrections agency. The individual leading the new program – whose title would be chief probation officer and executive director of community corrections – would be appointed by and report directly to the executive committee created under the bill and a supervising judge.

Although the bill calls for the new leader to consult with the community corrections advisory board, opponents of the measure fear the public’s voice would be lost.

Crawford interpreted Young’s proposal as making community corrections subordinate to probation rather than continuing as a separate, independent agency with its own mission and responsibility.

“There are lots of ways to collaborate and share resources,” Crawford said, “and there’s nothing wrong with doing a consolidation pilot that recognizes both as independent agencies without one being subsumed by the other.”

Young said the bill makes sure that both probation and community corrections have equal representation on the executive committee. Moreover, he contends that committee will set the goals and guidelines for the consolidated program just like the advisory boards do now.

Christine Kerl, chief probation officer for Marion Superior Court Probation, has served on a community corrections advisory board and remembered the members all being very committed and diligent to their work in overseeing the community corrections department.

Since the duties of the advisory board have been established by statute, Kerl said Young’s bill should contain language that clearly defines the role of the advisory boards when departments are merged.

On the idea of consolidation, in general, Kerl said the position of the Probation Officers’ Professional Association of Indiana was that such decisions should be made at the local level.

Creating programs

Although he applauds Young’s efforts to foster cooperation between different agencies, Bill Watson, director of Vigo County Community Corrections, is not convinced members from the community would retain control of programs, procedures and budgets.

He is concerned that the power over community corrections will be transferred from the local advisory board to a single judge. The consequence of getting just one point of view could be programs that do not serve the unique needs of each county and that fail to anticipate the future needs.

As an example, he pointed to the Vigo County Community Corrections advisory board which has professionals coming from the judiciary, law enforcement, business, education and mental health services.

Six years ago when Vigo County started a work-release program, the advisory board was very active in laying the foundation and formulating how the initiative would operate, the criteria for people entering and what services would be offered. Each member of the board brought his or her own perspective, which helped create a well-rounded addition to community corrections in the county.

“It really helped shape the program because everyone pointed out something that if you didn’t work in that realm, you didn’t think about,” Watson said, who is also president of the Indiana Association of Community Corrections Act Counties.

Grant County consolidated its probation and community corrections departments into a unified system more than 20 years ago. According to the organizational chart, the correctional services are overseen by a director who is under the county’s Circuit and Superior courts.

Chris Cunningham, director of Grant County Community Corrections, said the two departments work well together. They are able to share resources and skills, which helps maintain continuity when working with offenders.

He noted this consolidation was organized and implemented by the community.

“Seems to me when you try to force people into doing things cooperatively, do you really have cooperation?” Cunningham asked.

Within Marion County, Indianapolis Community Court Judge David Certo said he is less concerned about how programs are administered and more focused on having effective programs available.

He is not for or against Young’s bill, saying the General Assembly has the province to make decisions.

“I know we have to have (good) outcomes and we have to have them now,” Certo said. “If the Legislature tells us to do something and they fund it, we’ll do a bang-up job.”

Crawford conceded that fiscal constraints are necessitating changes to make sure the operations are using money efficiently and the system is handling offenders effectively. Yet, she maintained the solutions should come from the community members.

If Young’s bill was amended so that probation and community corrections were co-equals and the directors of each department would be selected in the manner they have been, Crawford thinks the community corrections advisory board in Marion County “would be more amenable to considering the bill favorably.”

Going statewide

Community corrections officials outside of Marion County believe that while this is a pilot project, consolidation, if realized, will become permanent. Despite Young’s assertion that continuing the consolidation beyond three years would require another bill, officials question whether the departments can be untangled after they are merged.

Also, community corrections proponents believe consolidations will eventually be mandated across the state. Merging programs should be left to local leaders, rather than the Statehouse applying a cookie-cutter approach, they said, because every county has different needs and services.

In Lake County, consolidating the two departments would be devastating, said Kellie Bittorf, executive director of Lake County Community Corrections. Probation and community corrections, while they do collaborate and share resources, serve two different populations of offenders and offer different services.

Bittorf credited the community corrections advisory board with the success of the program in Lake County and reiterated Watson’s concerns – that consolidation would limit the advisory board’s ability to design programs and make decisions.

In response to requests to let the communities decide how to unify probation and community corrections, Young doubted a grass-roots effort would be fruitful, pointing out that to date only a handful of Indiana’s 92 counties have consolidated. A pilot is needed, he said, to find out what works, and the Legislature should be involved in the process.

“We’re the ones that passed the law that allowed them to do this,” Young said of the legislation that established community corrections and the advisory boards. “So we have the right to look at what we created to see if there’s a better way.”•
 

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