Spotlight on Napa County: Harkness Fellow sees evidence-based practice in action

by 2015 Harkness Fellow, Aphra Green, currently in the US

In 2005, the State of California was facing significant overcrowding in its prisons, and the Napa County jail was at capacity. Napa County decided not to build a new jail but rather implement an evidence based criminal justice system looking at best practices to reduce the population and assist in offender rehabilitation.

The Probation Department started using an assessment tool to identify risk and needs of offenders (LS/CMI). Caseloads were reduced and services were increased including the opening of a day reporting center funded by the county.

napaIn 2011, the Supreme Court ordered the state to reduce its prison population by 33,000 people in two years. The State did this through “justice realignment” – essentially the legislated devolution of State funding and management of non-serious, non-violent, non-sex offenders to counties to manage.[1] Napa County was ready for these changes due to all the work that had already been done.

Each county in California took a different approach to the “realignment”. Some increased their jail capacity. A small number, including Napa County, used the money to increase probation staff and programs and expand evidence based practices – to allow for the majority of these offenders to be safely managed within the community. The result is that the County has delayed the build of a new jail for over 10 years. And the result for California? Recent research shows that the realignment had only a small effect on crime in California, with a only a small increase in property crime – specifically vehicle thefts – attributable to downsizing.[2]

What did they do?

Specifically, there were three service changes implemented with the realignment funding:

1. Pretrial services were established.

2. Home detention was introduced as a sentencing option.

3. The day-reporting centre was expanded.

4. Additional caseloads were designed to take on the new populations that were now coming to probation.

As well, particular evidence-based practices were incorporated into Napa County criminal justice decision-making:

1. Risk assessment tools were introduced in 2005 to support decision-making and service provision for pretrial and supervised post-conviction populations.

2. A Rewards and Sanctions Grid was introduced in 2011 as a decision-making tool for Probation Officers – the purpose of this tool is to increase compliance and decrease revocations that result from violation behaviour. Law enforcement now calls the on call probation officer prior to arresting a probationer for a violation.

3. The Probation Department invested in significant training for their staff in evidence-based practices and provided tools like the Carey Guides and the Brief Intervention Tools, as well as introducing cognitive behavioural programmes that are run by probation staff.

4. Evidence-based sentencing was introduced in court (pre-sentence reports) in 2005.

All of these changes are now underpinned by an integrated case management system, which gives real time performance data across justice agencies, while also enabling greater collaboration and appropriate information-sharing between agencies.

How did they do it?

There are four factors that stand out in Napa County’s success:

1. A highly collaborative spirit exists across criminal justice agencies. These agencies are all members of their local Community Corrections Partnership – and this group is itself a feature of their reforms – but it is clearly the collaborative approach taken by this group that is instrumental to its success.

2. A spirit of innovation and a lack of fear of failure. As their Chief Probation Officer put it: “if it doesn’t work, we’ll stop doing it.” It is likely that their smaller County population and lower risk offender population has afforded the County some agility in this regard.

3. Broad support from community leaders. Napa’s Board of Supervisors were crucial in securing funding and in supporting the innovative approach taken by the County’s criminal justice agencies.

4. A lack of media criticism suggesting the need to be tougher on crime. While this is possibly a feature of being a relatively small community, the media were also openly engaged in the reforms (they were proactively briefed by the Chief Probation Officer) and were invited to report on positive developments (such as graduations from the day reporting centre).

All of these reforms have placed Napa County in a good position for the future. Their integrated case management system means that they are able to track the impact of policy and operational changes imposed on the criminal justice system by State policy-makers. This means they are also well-placed to continue to receive State and Federal funding and training.

Supported by the National Institute of Corrections, the County is now trialling another model built on the foundations of evidence-based practice to test a new model of probation supervision – “dosage probation”. The Dosage Probation Model builds on evidence-based and promising practices to restructure sentencing and probation management practices, with the goal of improving offender outcomes (i.e., recidivism reduction) and decreasing the costs associated with lengthy supervision terms. Key elements of the Dosage Probation Model include incentivizing offenders’ engagement in risk-reducing activities, ensuring offenders receive interventions and services that have been demonstrated effective in reducing recidivism, and providing the opportunity for early termination from supervision when risk reduction goals have been met. The results of this trial will inform Napa County’s own probation practice and – if successful – will prove the concept for possible expansion to other willing jurisdictions.

What can New Zealand learn?

New Zealand is currently facing significant pressure on its prison capacity, largely driven by increases in the pretrial population. The fact that Napa County has avoided building a new jail largely through the use of evidence-based practices shows that there are viable alternatives to simply building new incarceration facilities.

The ability to collaborate and innovate safely also rests upon broad leadership and support from community and government leaders – and this is where the National Institute of Corrections fits in. Through leadership, willingness to innovate, and providing on-the-ground training and assistance, the NIC is able to make incremental – but significant – changes to the US criminal justice system. There are aspects of this model that New Zealand could look to incorporate into its own system. Finally, we will be following the results of the Dosage Probation trial as it progresses.

[1] California Public Safety Realignment Law, known as AB 109, see

[2] Charis Kubrin and Carroll Seron, The Great Experiment: Realigning Criminal Justice in California and Beyond, The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, March 2016, Vol. 664.