Program Looks to Serve Those Who May Otherwise Be Incarcerated

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Provided by Prince William County

Some people who are awaiting trial might not need to wait in jail. The Prince William County Office of Criminal Justice Services, or OCJS, has the Pretrial and Local Offender Probation Program, which can help to supervise defendants and offenders in the community.

Steve Austin, the director of OCJS, said the office works under the aegis of the Prince William County Courts system to screen people and offer advice to the courts about who might be a candidate for pretrial services. “All of our work is done under the authority of the court. Individuals have been referred to us by the judges.”

Once judges refer someone to the OCJS, the office screens defendants to glean knowledge for the court, Austin said. “We’re giving the judge information that’s going to help them make the decision of whether a person is going to stay in jail pending trial. We want the judges to have all the information available so that their decisions can be more informed.”

OCJS uses various methods to manage defendants in the community, Austin said. “We see people in the office. We see people in the field. We have an intensive program where we do home visits and GPS monitoring.”

One of the benefits of keeping non-violent, low-risk defendants out of jail is that they can keep their jobs, their homes and family relationships intact while they remain in the community, away from the influences incarceration can bring, Austin said. “If a person doesn’t get out pending trial, a lot of times the effects are detrimental to both the criminal justice system and to the individual. The jail should really be for people that are the greatest risks to the community.”

Another benefit of the pretrial program is that it saves the county money and eases jail crowding. Keeping people out of jail reserves beds for more high-risk defendants, Austin said. “It’s good for the county because it’s a good and effective way to use scarce criminal justice resources and it helps us manage the jail population more efficiently and effectively. It helps by keeping people who can function well in the community out of jail. If we can get people out of the jail who can safely be managed in the community and reserve those beds for the people that we’re most concerned about, then that is a good use of resources and it helps everyone.”

The office also has programs that can give people who have been recently released the tools to keep them out of jail, Austin said. Post-trial substance abuse counseling, monitoring, drug testing and cognitive thinking and restructuring can be used to help people successfully return to the community. “We provide alternatives to help get behavior back in line with the law and to keep them from returning or committing new offenses.”

Austin said that the work done by the staff of OCJS is backed up by guidance from organizations such as the Department of Criminal Justice Services and the National Institute of Corrections. “Everything we do is in the realm of evidence-based work and is steeped in research. What we’ve learned from the research and science about risk is that there are people who have encounters with law enforcement, get arrested and function fine without services; and there are higher risk people who need services. Our aim is to give the best information to the courts so they can make that decision.”

The office’s screening process also helps identify people who may have committed crimes due to mental illness, Austin said. “Getting people with mental health issues in the jail is a real problem. People with mental health issues tend to get worse when they’re in the jail because it’s just not the right place for them. Obviously, they’ve done something against the law that’s gotten them there, but a lot of times that’s because of the mental health issues.”

Austin said the office’s goal is to find referrals and alternatives for people with mental illnesses who are a low risk to the community. “We look at trying to divert them wherever we can. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they get treated differently from other people in the criminal justice system. It does mean that they’ve come to the attention of the court, and we know that their behavior and often their mental illness is what brings them here. In instances in which they cannot be diverted, we want to ensure that they receive services that will assist them to become stable and better able to function in the community.”

Ultimately the office conducts its business with the community in mind, Austin said. “Our goal is public safety.”

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