New probation program in DeKalb County aims to expedite rehabilitation

DeKalb County one of five to land federal funding for Swift, Certain and Fair

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SYCAMORE – DeKalb County has launched a new probation program geared to expedite consequences and rewards for offenders and, ultimately, make the county a safer place to live.

The county is one of five nationwide to have landed federal funding for the Swift, Certain and Fair Probation program, made possible by a three-year, $600,000 grant.

Offenders sentenced to traditional probation who violate the terms might not be punished by the court for months. The new program allows the county’s Court Services to immediately apply sanctions.

“(With traditional probation) it might be six, eight, 10 months until that gets resolved,” adult probation supervisor Steve Sells said. “In the meantime, he’s still out there, and we’re still trying to get a hold of him and bring him in. From his perspective, he sees he’s misbehaved, but there hasn’t been an immediate consequence.

“I kind of liken that to raising a small child. If your child misbehaves, if I address the misbehavior 10 months from now, what’s the likelihood they’re going to be able to draw a connection to that?”

Peggy Carey, who was a probation officer in the department last year, applied for the grant in April 2016, and it was awarded Sept. 30. That created a new position for her as the coordinator of the new Court Services program.

Court Services, the DeKalb County State’s Attorney’s Office, the public defender’s office, the county’s judges and its law enforcement all collaborated to fine-tune the program. Two offenders are up for assessments to determine whether they’re a fit for it, and the hope is to have 20 participants in the first year, add another 50 the next year, and even potentially transition all probationers to the program in the next five years, Sells said.

One goal is reduce the backlog in the local court system. In exchange, however, if an SCF participant violates a probation term, they become a top priority, which means other stakeholders have to move quickly.

“Because it’s swift, certain and fair, your (arrest) warrant is being served today,” Carey said.

“That took work from the stakeholder’s perspective,” Sells said. “It’s not just the warrant being issued, but it needs to be immediately served. We’re a big county. That took cooperation with the sheriff’s office, the jail staff and the clerk’s office. The state has to write it, the clerk has to file it, the sheriff’s office needs to serve it.”

Drug testing through the Swift, Certain and Fair program is more frequent than in typical probation. Participants must call a drug testing center daily to find out whether they need to take a test at Court Services.

That’s the point where another unique aspect of the new probation program kicks in: Giving the participant the option to make the next-best decision, if they know they’ll fail.

If they fess up before taking and failing a test, they’ll get a Level 1 sanction, which can range from sitting in a courtroom for the day without access to a cellphone to two days in jail.

“This program is really based on the client making the next-best decision,” Sells said.

“Everyone makes bad decisions,” Carey said. “What’s your next decision?”

If a probationer lies and tests positive for drug use, the next-level sanction can range up to four days of confinement. If they don’t show up for their drug test or their sanction, or if they provide a diluted sample, they spend a week in jail.

If they miss a probation appointment, but call within 24 hours to explain, it’s another Level 1 sanction. If someone needs to call the offender, next level, and if they don’t show up again, a week in jail.

Conversely, for every month a participant follows the rules, he or she gets a week off the end of their probation sentence. If they go two years without any missteps, they get off probation.

“At that point, they’re going to be OK,” Carey said. “They’re not going to violate again.”

If a participant earns a GED or gets a job and holds it for six months, their fines and court costs are reduced by $250.

If they complete Steps, court services’ intensive 25-week program, they can get $500 off, or time off their community service.

The program doesn’t automatically sentence participants with drug charges to drug court.

“They’ll be given the opportunity to test negative,” Carey said. “If they do not test negative, there will be an immediate confinement sanction. The thought is those who are not addicts will quickly realize they shouldn’t be doing it because there’s an immediate consequence.

“Those who can’t stop using, we’ll realize they need treatment.”

That approach breaks up another backlog. Sells said if a traditional probation client has Medicaid, and depending on the drug treatment agency they’re assigned to, it could take months for them to get in.

“There’s a huge waiting list,” Carey said. “By not ordering all these people immediately into treatment, we also break up the backlog for people who really need treatment.”

Only offenders with charges in the county are eligible for the program. Only those with felonies Class 1 through 4 can take part – no Class X felonies, such as aggravated criminal assault, armed robbery and armed violence. Sex offenders are not allowed, although that could change, Sells said.

Those charged with misdemeanors also are ineligible.

“We’re working really hard to try to remove barriers for clients,” Sells said. “With a lot of our clients, it’s not that they don’t want to succeed. They might not be able to. They might have a wife and kids, and a job where they work 60 hours a week. They might not have a license, so they risk driving to work to pay their bills. And oh, by the way, you have to pay for your drug and alcohol assessment.”

What is Swift, Certain and Fair Probation?
The probation program, new to DeKalb County, immediately punishes clients for violations of probation, and gives incentives for following court orders.
The goal is to keep clients from receiving long-term jail or prison sentences, and to give them the best possible chance of successfully completing probation.
For information, contact the program's coordinator, Peggy Carey, at 815-895-7193 or