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Citing the ongoing budget crunch, the Alameda County probation department is pulling staff out of many drug courts and diversion programs. The department will no longer provide drug testing for those programs and will write fewer restitution reports, the probation chief says. But judges say the changes, which took effect Tuesday, will cripple the superior court’s 11-year-old drug court — the first such program in the state and the second in the nation — and other programs that help defendants turn their lives around. “Drug testing is essential to the operation of a drug court,” said Presiding Judge Harry Sheppard, who said the probation department is also reducing its role in other areas such as diversion and deferred entry of judgment programs. “If you don’t have it, you have gutted the operation.” “It will emasculate our drug court,” said Oakland’s drug court judge, David Krashna. He estimated that thousands of defendants have successfully completed Alameda County’s drug court program since it began in 1992. The cuts seemed to take two county supervisors by surprise. “I don’t remember that being spelled out in the budget hearing,” board President Gail Steele said. This summer, the probation department was forced to slice $7 million from its budget, said Chief Probation Officer Donald Blevins, who was hired in July. The probation department didn’t lay off workers but it lost funding for 19 vacant posts and cut many programs. Soon thereafter it became clear that the agency would have to reevaluate its role, probation officials said. “I think that anyone who has a drug problem should be offered treatment options and services,” Blevins said, adding that the service reductions were being discussed with court officials before he was hired. But his department can’t afford to write progress reports, do drug testing or to have probation officers aggressively monitor many of those low-risk defendants, Blevins said. Probation will continue to monitor defendants in domestic violence and other serious cases, said department spokeswoman Nina Ramsey. Now that lawmakers have passed the state budget, another $30 million will have to be cut from the county’s budget in the upcoming months, Blevins said. Staffing special court programs would threaten core services such as monitoring high-risk offenders and running juvenile detention programs. Many judges were alarmed as the impact of the cutbacks became clear this week. Proposition 36 drug courts and felony drug courts use legal muscle to get people to change their lives, said Krashna, the drug court judge. The programs allow offenders to shorten probation or in some cases clear their criminal records. If they don’t straighten out, judges can kick them out of the program or toss them behind bars, he said. The probation department plays a key role, he said. In Oakland, Krashna can send a defendant down the street to the probation department for a drug test and get results within 20 minutes. He said in many cases he won’t know if a defendant has stayed clean unless the probation department tests them on their court date. The court gets separate funding under Prop 36 for nonviolent drug offenders, but that program will be affected too, he said. For example, probation usually does same-day testing on program “graduates.” “I need to know that they are clean that day,” Krashna said. Further south, Judge Peggy Hora was also concerned. “It’s huge,” said the Hayward Drug Treatment Court PJ, noting that such programs help successful defendants clear their records so they can get jobs, apply for loans or vote. “More African-American men will get felony jackets,” she said. Hora theorized that it would have been harder for probation to make such a change before voters passed Measure C. That county initiative transferred from the court to the county the power to hire and fire the probation chief. Presiding Judge Sheppard, however, noted that the county has always controlled the probation department’s purse strings, so the changes may have occurred even if Measure C had not passed. Two county supervisors caught off guard by the news, Steele and Supervisor Keith Carson, said department heads were required to tell them how budget cuts would impact county residents. Both supervisors said that they don’t remember probation officials mentioning anything about the drug courts. “This is the first that I’ve heard about it,” Carson said. “I am pretty taken aback. I have historically been supportive of the drug court. I hope that this is reassessed.” Steele said it might have slipped by because county leaders get so much material, but “it would be something that I would remember.” Meanwhile, some judges are struggling to handle special calendars with less probation department help. In Oakland, Judge Larry Goodman was trying to figure out how to keep running a mentoring program for young drug dealers that he started eight years ago. In Fremont, Judge Richard Keller continued Penal Code [SECTION SYMBOL] 1000 deferred-entry-of-judgment cases. Keller said public defenders were trying to figure what position their office would take on the issue. “At the moment we are all looking for answers,” Keller said. Contra Costa County and Santa Clara County probation department officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday. In San Francisco, the Adult Probation Department saw no noticeable change this fiscal year to the types of services it provides the courts, said Armando Cervantes, chief adult probation officer. However, Cervantes’ department laid off five support staff and increased probation officers’ caseloads to weather the funding cuts, plus a hiring freeze that has left eight retired officers’ jobs vacant. The department also has directed more people to check in with probation officers via mail, he said. As for Alameda County, more responsibility will fall on the offenders themselves. “The shift on accountability has to be on the offender to show that they are in drug treatment and doing what they are supposed to do,” Blevins said.

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