By William Cracraft
From left to right are Kevin Thomas, supervisory probation officer; Jenna Russo, probation officer specialist; Jose Figueroa, probation officer; Kristen Coleman, probation officer; and Anthony “Tony” Castellano, chief probation officer. All officers are from the Northern District of California.
The United States Probation Office for the Northern District of California has ramped up efforts to help released prisoners train up and find work, greatly reducing the chances they will re-offend.
“One of my office’s goals is to create better outcomes for our clients,” said Anthony Castellano, chief probation officer for the Northern District of California. “A key risk factor for clients is being unemployed or under-employed. Studies show that if you have a good paying job, you’re less likely to recidivate by a pretty good margin. In the past, officers’ engagement in this area was inconsistent, partly due to high caseloads. Creating smaller caseloads was achieved by downsizing the administrative staff and hiring more officers. The results placed our district at 67th out of 94 districts in terms of caseload size. Our caseloads average 43.15 versus the national average of 47.49.”
The next step was to create a Workforce Development Team, now called Work Opportunity and Resources for Change (WORC). The team was formed after its core members from the Northern District of California, probation officers Kristen Coleman and Jose Figueroa, and Jenna Russo, probation officer specialist, completed Offender Workforce Development Specialist (OWDS) training in November 2019. Another member of the team is Supervisor Kevin Thomas, who has an extensive background in workforce development and has worked very closely with each officer to develop the programs.
Next, the team “created a virtual education center, developed contacts with our community partners in each of our counties and is working with each of our supervision units to address each client,” said Castellano, who has a staff of about 80, with 50 in the supervision division.
The Northern District’s probation office has about 1,700 clients under supervision at any given time, releases about 70 probationers out and adds about 70 each month, said Castellano. Officers are focused on released prisoners who are able to work, but are unemployed, known as the “unemployed unexcused.”
The district’s clients, as Castellano prefers to call them, are all post-conviction. “When they come out … their sentence could be anywhere from three to five years,” said Castellano. “We know we only have these individuals anywhere from two to three years on average, so the question is, what can we do with them during those 36 months?” he asked. “That’s where we start the process of integrating them into society.”
The office performs an assessment to determine, among other things, the released person’s education and employability. “If you are not employed, is it because you’re on disability or you’re retired or you’re going to school? Those are all excused reasons to not be employed,” said Castellano. If a lack of education is a critical factor in helping the released find work, the supervising officer steps in with educational opportunities.
“Some of them (clients) really need their hands to be held and this is one of the things that I tell my officers to do. Don’t just give them a piece of paper and say, ‘go to this agency and they will get you a job,’” said Castellano.
“There are other risk factors besides education: there is substance abuse, mental health, cognitive development, there is the social network –trying to have good people around you instead of bad people. There’s a plan for each one of those risk factors, I just find (education) is an area that we can make an immediate difference with our clients and it’s exciting, too,” he said.
College is an option but is too long of a commitment for many. “We believe the success is with technical schools where you can learn skills and become an apprentice,” said Castellano. Those programs can include plumbing, electrical and automotive repair training, and qualifying for a commercial driver’s license. “All the programs are funded in such a way that the clients would not be paying for going to school.
“The key part to this, the driver, is making the effort important for the officers. We’re challenging them, my officers, to work with their clients and to spend time with them,” said Castellano.
The Northern District has 1,200 supervisees employed out of 1,609 total, making it 16th out of 94 districts nationwide, with a 74.6% employment rate. The national employment average is 69.5% for the 118,903 under supervision 1.
“Our unemployed unexcused rate is the second best in the country,” Castellano said. “Out of 1,700 clients, only 6.4% are unemployed unexcused, which means they don’t have a path yet. Twenty percent of our clients recidivate, lower than the circuit or the national average by quite a bit. What that number tells me is that the officers are working hard.”
James Estrella is reaping the rewards of the education program, working at Goodwill and as a DoorDash driver, poised to move into a job as a forklift driver or construction flagger, and working on his GED to continue his personal renewal.
After he was released on probation, he saw the advantages offered by the Northern District’s probation department. “The probation department helped me basically get my life in order,” said Estrella, 30. “The probation office helped me with the Rubicon Program, and the Rubicon Program helped me with parenting classes and helped me find a job. Rubicon helped me find out if I had (traffic) tickets so I could get my license.
“Everything they did was very encouraging and basically let me know I can start over, and just because I made mistakes in my past doesn’t dictate who I am today, 10 years later, and what I want to become in my future,” said Estrella. “So, they very much helped me.”
Estrella is confident he can get work, even if his current jobs dry up. “I’m going to take a flaggers class that Rubicon is helping me with—they are helping me pay for it, so I can get a flagger’s job. Rubicon helped me take my forklift classes, and I have my certification for that, too. Rubicon is going to be helping me get a job—whichever one opens up faster,” he said.
Russo has been involved in the workforce development and reentry arena since 2013. Prior to the formation of the WORC team, those newly released could get help from their supervising officer. “Historically, some officers have worked independently with clients who present specific needs, including education or training for employment,” she said. “There was no systematic approach to identify what programs were being used or to track the outcome.”
The team, which now includes probation officers Carolena Martin and Janella Tolbert, has helped about 60 clients since June 2020. “In July 2021, we created a new referral process where the team can receive information about clients and work collaboratively with the client and their assigned probation officer. With the system in place, we are better able to focus on getting clients connected with vocational schools and colleges. Some of our more recent referrals have already started classes at a variety of schools,” said Russo.
Getting the client on a track that motivates them is important. “A team member works with the client to develop a plan based on their interests and skills,” said Russo. “We utilize assessments like the O*NET Interest Profiler (a commonly used assessment tool). We aim to place people in programs or careers where they are most likely to flourish.
“Some of the programs we partner with include Rubicon; Center for Employment Opportunities Marin; San Jose, and Oakland); Goodwill Industries; Young Community Developers; Success Centers and the colleges associated with the BASIC Consortium.
“We put together district-wide virtual webinars in October for our clients in which local community colleges presented on their vocational and transfer programs,” said Russo. “We partnered with Alameda County Probation Department on that and called it Onward October. This has been a huge project organized by our WORC Team Member Kristen Coleman. We had a great turn out and will work with the clients individually to get them referred to the programs that interested them.”
Then comes the personal touch that makes the program successful. “We do check in with our programs, and we like to have a specific point of contact for each,” said Russo. “Sometimes our clients might have a case manager, job coach or counselor assigned to them. It is always important for us to independently verify the status of each so we know whether there are needs we can address as a team.”
Russo also noted the success of one client whose supervising officer referred her to the WORC team. “She was assessed using the skills and interest profiler and interviewed about her previous experience, interests and current situation,” said Russo. “She explained that her mother recently passed away, and she was dealing with a number of stressors at home with her siblings. She was hoping to start working somewhere immediately in order to get some separation from the stress and be productive.
“She was sent to Center for Employment Opportunities (CE0) in Marin and was placed in transitional employment with CalTrans and started working with a job coach. She received multiple positive reports from the site manager and completed the OSHA warehouse training and the forklift training. She is now working at Prologistics in Oakland in unsupported employment and is eligible for a bonus with CEO in Marin. Her self-esteem has grown leaps and bounds. CEO and the Workforce Team are really proud of her!” Russo said.
As for those who don’t thrive, there is no one reason clients fall out of the program,” said Russo. “Unfortunately, even when clients are in a supportive environment, they can encounter barriers both internal and external. Many of these our team can address.”
But there is a multitude who do thrive. “Many of the clients are simply motivated by the idea of successfully completing something,” said Russo. “That often is a great motivator in itself for clients, especially when the journey is difficult. Our clients also have families they want to provide for and make proud.”
Estrella, who has three children, recommends the program to others in his situation. “Your probation officer will definitely point you in the right direction. With Rubicon and all the opportunities and classes they have going on, it is just all up to you to take opportunities where you can better yourself and better your life,” he said.
It feels “awesome” to know his life is on track, he said. “It feels very good waking up every day and knowing you are not doing anything illegal, not doing anything wrong, where you don’t have to worry about going back to prison, you don’t have to worry about leaving your family again or your kids again. It definitely feels good,” he said.
The program is rewarding for Russo, as well. “I am really proud of the work we do, and I can definitely say that I think about my successful clients and hope that they continue to do well throughout their lives,” she said. “We supervise some extraordinarily talented people who often just need the opportunity and tools to shine. I think that’s what this team does best.”# # #
1 DSS Standard Report #1055, Employment Report (PC) - National Metrics. Data Current as of 08/01/2021