Transitions: Napa County Targets Risks, Needs and Recidivism


California’s state and local correctional agencies have been under tremendous pressure to change how they operate. With both state and local jurisdictions facing severe institutional overcrowding, high recidivism rates and major budget shortfalls, change is inevitable.

Napa County is in a better situation than most California counties. Until the recent economic downturn, our fiscal condition was been relatively sound and our jail has not experienced significant overcrowding.

However, in late 2004 we began to notice that increased demand for use of our 264 jail beds had resulted in periodic overcrowding in some jail units. In 2006, the county retained programming experts Carter Goble Lee to assist with developing a master plan for the adult correctional system’s short- and long-term needs. We analyzed criminal justice trends and jail capacity needs.

Among other trends, we found our county’s annual population growth would average 0.7 percent from 2005, but our at-risk age group (20 to 34 years old) would grow 1.4 percent annually. We found our crime indexes had climbed since early this decade, as well as our arrest rates.

At the jail, we noticed admissions were rising, along with a slight increase in our average length of stay. When we compared our data trends against six California peer counties, we found our inmate mix was weighted heavily with misdemeanor offenders and our peers were diverting misdemeanants away from jail time more effectively.

County officials determined future jail capacity was inadequate. Depending on the projection model used, operational capacity needs were estimated to be 325 beds to 375 beds by 2015 and 351 beds to 473 beds by 2025, if current trends continued.

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County officials calculated the cost of new jail bed construction at $105,000 per bed to build and almost $32,000 per bed to operate annually.

Evidence-Based Practice

Napa County has a history of handling its correctional issues collaboratively among various groups to solve problems such as aging facilities, intake issues and alternative programming.

The Napa County Criminal Justice Committee, a group of stakeholders from the criminal justice community, was formed to seek improvement in the system. In addition to seeking cost-effective solutions, the committee sought to include evidence-based practices into any solution implemented so that long-term results could be maximized and public safety impacted positively.

Members of the Criminal Justice Committee recognized that implementing evidence-based practices could potentially reduce the demand for costly jail beds but agreed that cost savings should not be a driving factor. Instead, the committee agreed that the focus should be on enhancing public safety by reducing recidivism.

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In the final plan, the committee stated its goal: to “operate an adult correctional system that provides for offender accountability and public health and safety, utilizing evidence-based practices to reduce recidivism and maintain appropriate level of custody and control in the most cost-effective way possible.”

After conducting an evidence-based practices assessment with The Carey Group, a New York-based criminal justice consulting firm, Napa County’s board of supervisors approved a plan to implement a community-based corrections center to deliver evidence-based treatment and correctional services to carefully screened offenders.

The center, which opened in March, is open seven days a week and allows for up to 50 participants. By incorporating evidence-based practices, we sought to reduce offender risk and subsequent recidivism, and lower the county’s long-term costs.

The center uses eight principles of effective intervention: assessing risk and needs of participants, enhancing motivations, targeting intervention, skill training, positive reinforcement, support in the community, measuring process and delivering feedback.

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The community-based portion of the day-reporting program tailors interventions based on assessed risk, with more resources and programming delivered to high-risk offenders.

The concepts of effective intervention employed in Napa were implemented in a 2002 pilot project conducted in Illinois and Maine by the National Institute of Corrections in partnership with the Crime and Justice Institute.

The Napa County Probation Department oversees the center while BI Inc., of Boulder, Colo., operates it. In addition to probationers, some pretrial defendants are referred to the Napa County center.


The center is a resource for the probation department, which can refer more challenging individuals who require intensive supervision and treatment classes to break the cycle of repeat criminal behavior. It delivers cognitive behavioral treatment programs operating under evidence-based principles.

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Individuals referred to the center go through a four-phase program that lasts up to 180 days. Participants report daily at first, then less frequently as they comply with program guidelines. In addition to daily check-ins, participants are monitored closely for alcohol and drug use, meet with case managers and participate in a series of group treatment and training classes.

Offenders referred to the center undergo an extensive assessment upon entering the program, a tool that helps drive specific treatment and activities while they are in the program. Once enrolled at the center, they are held strictly accountable and are expected to display positive behaviors. Failure to comply with center rules and guidelines results in increased sanctions, such as tighter curfews, more frequent visits to the center, additional classes or a return to incarceration.

Each time a participant reports to the center, he or she must submit to a breathalyzer test. In addition, program participants must submit to random urine screening to test for drug use multiple times monthly. This is an intensive approach, but it works to stabilize individuals transitioning to the community while improving their patterns of behavior and thinking over time.

Moral reconation therapy is a key element of the center. The cognitive behavioral therapy program is one of only six registered interventions applied successfully in correctional settings to treat mental health and substance abuse. MRT’s core strategy is to improve decision-making skills, an essential component of breaking patterns of criminal thinking and repeat criminal activity.

Participants attend a series of other classes to stabilize their transition to the community, including substance abuse education and treatment, adult basic education and GED preparation, life skills, parent and family classes, anger management, employment skills building and aftercare.

Community Services

Napa County also utilizes an in-jail transition program that can accommodate up to 50 inmates. This program is designed for inmates incarcerated at the jail to receive much of the same treatment and training they will receive when they are released to probation and supervision through the service center.

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The goal is to introduce treatment and training to facilitate a successful transition to life at home, continue programming at the community-based service center and maximize the impact of programs delivered. While identifying and incorporating inmates into the program was a challenge early in its implementation due to many factors, such as logistical challenges of group therapy classes for mixed offender classes, the hope is that this program will reach its target enrollment in the next year.

An important element of the in-jail treatment and training program is the connection created with the community corrections center. When individuals in the community-based program are non-compliant, they receive additional sanctions. If they are returned to the jail, they will still receive services and are required to work, so program continuity is maintained and results enhanced.

By entering the in-jail treatment and training program, inmates can reduce time in jail if they successfully complete certain levels of the program and transition to the community corrections center.

In both components of our re-entry transition strategy, program participants are held accountable for their compliance to program guidelines. Consequences are clear and firmly applied, as are rewards for positive compliance.

The county’s commitment to the success of this supervision, treatment and training effort is significant in time, money and resources, but our board of supervisors and management team believe it will pay dividends for citizens in the future. Participants are being assessed as they enter the program and as they exit for levels of risk for criminal activity.

The county has established an aggressive goal to reduce recidivism by 30 percent. We have committed resources to measuring and evaluating outcomes over time to determine if this goal is achieved. We have also committed to paying close attention to both internal and external research to introduce program elements that are supported by best research evidence.

In time, the county will want to expand its jail capacity, but the Criminal Justice Committee estimates it can expand to a lower capacity level — 366 beds — by 2025 by implementing these alternatives to detention and reducing the flow of returning probation violators. This will save the county more than $10 million in new construction costs. Millions more will be avoided in operational costs each year.

By addressing our challenges with evidence-based practices and programs, we hope to save taxpayer dollars, reduce the need for more jail capacity and begin to tackle one of the key issues that led to jail overcrowding in the first place — high recidivism.

Mary Butler is chief probation officer for Napa County.