By Marcos Breton
Last week, a bill for $19,000 landed in Danielle Callahan's mailbox. It was from a collection agency. It demanded payment on a debt connected to a crime that Callahan, a recovering drug addict, committed almost a decade ago.
"I think about it every day," said Callahan, 46. She's referring to the moment in 2006 when, strung out on methamphetamine, she fell asleep at the wheel and struck a pedestrian. She served a year in jail for causing "great bodily harm." She was ordered to pay restitution to her victim, a financial obligation that hangs over her life like a specter.
Callahan's incarceration and court-ordered restitution didn't liberate her from addiction. She kept using. She committed fraud. She was arrested again, incarcerated again. Drugs, she said, have caused every calamity in a turbulent life with many victims – Callahan's mother, her grown children and unfortunate strangers in her path.
What does society do about situations like this? Callahan's life is an example of how tough-on-crime measures might sound strong in the abstract, but can be weak in practice. Court-ordered restitution can be words that live only on paper.
"It can be a shell game," said Lee Seale, Sacramento County's chief probation officer. Some people might not want to hear it, but restitution similar to what Callahan is facing can be an inducement to commit more crimes. The stress of debt can cause people to "go underground, keep using and victimize somebody else," he said. "Sometimes you see people victimize others 10 or 15 times before they are done."
So how do you achieve restitution for victims and stop repeat offenders from committing more crimes and creating more victims?
Seale is directing his department to search for answers that acknowledge a central truth: People with long rap sheets such as Callahan are in the community in big numbers, and the path toward productivity begins with not only learning a trade but getting a real job that pays real money. And he has found some solutions in a relatively new collaboration.
There are many work programs for ex-cons, but this one is different. When Seale refers county probationers to Northern California Construction Training, a large nonprofit on Fruitridge Road, the incentive for hardened criminals is gainful employment. NCCT is connected with 22 labor unions. Since county probation began contracting with NCCT in December 2013, all 54 probationers referred there have landed jobs, some earning $20 to $25 an hour in the building trades.
"They can make real money to support a family, maybe a kid. That's what sets (this) apart," Seale said. The program also requires participants to obtain at least a GED and undergo 13 weeks of county-supervised drug detoxification, counseling and recovery.
Some might find this approach lenient and not sensitive enough to crime victims. But Seale sees it differently. There are approximately 21,000 adult probationers like Callahan in Sacramento County. Seale wants them to be responsible for the crimes they have committed. But he knows that won't happen if they have no way to atone. No education, no driver's license and no income means no restitution. It also means a continued life on the fringe.
This is an emotional issue that pits our sympathy for victims against our desire to confront California's soaring prison population and the growing public conviction that incarceration alone is not the answer for nonviolent drug offenders. Though she didn't pick up a gun or a knife, Callahan hurt someone because of her addiction. That should not be forgotten. She hasn't forgotten.
On Monday, standing in the job-training center where she spends most of her days, Callahan cried when recounting what she did. "I tried not to hit him," she said. "But I hit him anyway."
Callahan's life is at a crossroads. She working to recover from the destruction caused by her addiction. But the $19,000 debt she faces, and her inability to obtain a driver's license, could become too much for her. She could decide to drive illegally. She could start using again. She could ram her car into somebody else. What if it were you or someone you love?
Seale and his team are trying to prevent that from happening. They want to work with Callahan to get her driver's license back. Why? So she can work, earn money and pay her restitution.
"Will she pay back the entire $19,000? I don't know," Seale said. But how about paying some of it? How about creating opportunities that would stop Callahan from victimizing someone else?
On Monday, Callahan said she has been clean for eight months. To comply with the NCCT program, she is taking random drug tests several times a week.
It's not uncommon to hear about rehabilitation programs that sound good but are not quite as effective as advertised. Seale spoke of a common practice in which groups will cherry-pick participants who are motivated, nonthreatening and would probably succeed anyway.
When Seale linked up with NCCT, he wanted them to train people who were not cherry-picked for trade jobs. So the only probationers who aren't allowed to participate in this program are sex offenders. "We have lots of people with tough rap sheets," Seale said.
So far, the people sent to NCCT by Seale have finished the training program and landed union jobs in carpentry, plumbing, painting, hazardous materials work, heavy machinery operation and drywalling. Education is also part of the program. Participants who don't have their GED spend their mornings working on it before their vocational training. There is a shuttle bus that brings them to NCCT to avoid transportation issues.
The driving piece is key to this program. If the probationers can't eventually drive, they can't earn money. If they can't earn money honestly, they remain threats to society. Another "linchpin of this program is cognitive-based therapy," Seale said. "You learn to think and act differently to negative stimulus."
For the probationers, the choice is made clear: "A well-paying union job is the carrot," Seale said. "For a lot of them, there are no further opportunities. It's a life of crime, unemployment or this."
Callahan is learning how to operate heavy machinery and is being trained in the disposal of hazardous materials. "I'm just trying to be where God wants me to be," she said. Her mother often drops her off at NCCT in the morning. After class, she takes a shuttle bus and county bus and then walks the rest of the way home.
"It's hard," she said. "This is harder than sitting in a jail cell." But she doesn't want to go back to jail. She doesn't want to be a burden to her family any longer. She wants to make good for her crime. "If I had the money, I would pay it all back," she said.
What is the payoff for society? Probation officers still consider Callahan high risk given her past. But she recently told authorities that her 27-year-old son was murdered this past spring. "She said she felt gratified that her son knew she was trying to turn her life around when he died," Seale said. "She also has an insight into what it is to be a victim."
"We don't want there to be the next victim," Seale said. "Our job is to think about the next victim."
Marcos Breton: 916-321-1096, firstname.lastname@example.org, @MarcosBreton
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