Sheriff, probation chief stick with successful offender rehab program

An offender rehabilitation program that once scrapped for support from a skeptical law enforcement community has flourished under contracts with Sacramento County’s sheriff’s and probation departments, its co-founder said.

“[Sheriff Scott] Jones and [probation] Chief [Lee] Seale have been very supportive,” said Ascend co-founder Christine Morse. “And the results have shown.”

Ascend takes mostly court-ordered individuals who have been assessed a moderate-to-high-risk of re-offending and plunges them into a Sacramento State University-designed curriculum that teaches cognitive behavioral therapy and a working knowledge of the justice system.

According to data collected by Sac State, the program, dreamed up by two criminal defense attorneys during a mountain-climbing expedition, has steered the vast majority of its law-breaking clients back down the straight and narrow.

Since opening August 2011 in a borrowed classroom near the Arden Arcade neighborhood, the little rehab program that could has welcomed 123 men and women. Only 20 graduates—or 16 percent—got a new conviction since then.

That success rate is much higher than the county’s or state’s recidivism rate of about 60 percent or higher.

Morse says many of these graduates have enrolled in colleges and gotten hired to good jobs. “Many have gotten their driver’s licenses back, visitation and custody rights restored regarding their children, and other positive life steps,” she added. “Among our students, there has been far less crime than there otherwise would have been.”

During Ascend’s first couple of years, Morse and co-founder Toni White spent their own money on keeping the program afloat. Despite an early 10-percent recidivism rate and support from county supervisors, Ascend was unable to win any funding from a local corrections panel that distributes state prison realignment money. That panel is headed by the sheriff and probation chief.

Retired sheriff’s deputy of corrections Milo Fitch was the first law enforcement official to take a chance on Ascend, assigning a programming contract worth up to $180,000 as then-commander of the department’s primary jail, the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove.

That relationship stabilized within the sheriff’s department and doubled when Seale took over the probation department in 2013.

Ascend is now in its third year-long contract with the sheriff’s department, and third 6-month-long contract, worth $50,000, with the probation department.

The students we reached made great changes in their lives and for their children, and the truth is, we couldn’t have done it without Scott signing that contract,” Morse said. “Sheriff Jones and Chief Seale have supported Ascend, and that has literally made Sacramento a little safer.”

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