Sac State to finally study local realignment efforts

In an agreement inked today, Sacramento State University will spend the next year evaluating a criminal rehabilitation program it designed three years ago to make sure it’s actually working.

Under the terms of the new agreement, approved Tuesday by the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, researchers will be granted access to raw data on dozens of people incarcerated at the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove and those being released on ankle monitors. Half of the local offenders are enrolled in Ascend, a community-based program run by two criminal defense attorneys.

Sac State designed the program’s curriculum, which relies heavily on evidence-based treatment models and practical life skills. The university continues to oversee Ascend, which already tracks the outcomes of its students.

The agreement is more notable for opening the sheriff’s department and its individual rehabilitation programs up to independent evaluation. It’s been two-and-a-half years since California downshifted thousands of state prison inmates to local jurisdictions to deal with its overcrowding crisis. With the move came a new source of revenue for county law enforcement agencies around the state, but little oversight into how that money was being spent or whether so-called rehabilitation efforts were proving effective.

The chief of Sacramento County’s correctional arm, sheriff’s Capt. Milo Fitch, pressed for an independent Sac State evaluation last year, but a possible research project crumbled over a disagreement between probation and university officials.

The new local contract will allow researchers to follow 50 offenders participating in the Ascend program and 50 others who are either getting other reentry services or none at all. The evaluation period runs from March 26, 2014 to March 25, 2015.

While Ascend is regarded for its university-developed curriculum, what’s differentiated it from other rehabilitation programs has more to do with the straight-talking lawyers at its center.

For the past three years, founders Toni Carbone and Christine Morse Galves have plunged themselves—and their money—into the little program they named for a shared love of rock-climbing. Sacramento Superior Court judges began redirecting defendants to Ascend in July 2011 as a form of alternative sentencing.

Out of a borrowed classroom space in the Arden-Arcade area, Carbone and Morse Galves dissect the chain reaction of impulses that lead their students to lapse into criminal behavior again and again. They’re blunt about it, too, and don’t shy away from pointing out how the criminal justice system feeds off of their clients’ mistakes.

That no-bullshit attitude—and their 24-seven accessibility—has endeared them to a rotating student body that stays in contact long after graduating.

“When you ask a client what helped them most, they never say, ‘Oh, it was the evidence-based practices,’ even though that’s important,” Morse Galves said. “They say it was the human connection.”

Ascend’s record, which boasts a 10-percent recidivism rate among graduates, bears that out, but it took a while to win over Sacramento’s criminal justice system.

That actually only happened recently, with a change of leadership at the probation department and the promotion of Fitch, a key supporter.

“A year ago, last February, I thought we might have to close our program,” Morse Galves said.

But then the sheriff’s department awarded Ascend a contract to apply its program inside the county’s main correctional facility, Rio Cosumnes. A similar contract is in place with the probation department, said chief probation officer Lee Seale. Even the district attorney’s office, which used to hold Ascend at arm’s length, is referring defendants into the program now.

Galves sees this as part of a sea change sweeping through the region. Placer County’s chief probation officer has embraced a rehabilitative approach to justice as well, she said. “It’s changing literally how we run the criminal justice system,” she added.

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