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Charting a Path

About seven years ago, Kalamazoo County Circuit Judge Gary Giguere heard about an emerging sentencing practice that emphasizes assessing an individual offender’s needs then tailoring supervision and programming to meet them. He was intrigued. He started reading more about how evidence-based sentencing was being used in the criminal justice system, and he rallied for a contingent of Kalamazoo judges, attorneys and probation staff to attend a National Center for State Courts conference on the merits of the practice. “That really planted the seed locally,” he said. So when he heard the Michigan Department of Corrections was looking to start a pilot that would provide judges with recommendations based on in-depth assessments of offenders and their needs at the time of sentencing, he was immediately on board. In 2015, Giguere and Kalamazoo County Circuit Judge Alexander Lipsey began to use the results of the department’s COMPAS assessments in court to help determine supervision conditions and treatment programming. The assessments are completed by Michigan Department of Corrections field agents at the time of the pre-sentence investigation and include an interview, as well as a self-assessment completed by the offender. It takes into account a number of factors including history of violence and substance abuse, financial needs, employment, education, upbringing, mental health, family support and long-term goals. “COMPAS lets you tell the story,” said Kalamazoo Probation Agent Vonnie Hiller. “We’re trying to help the person. This helps us know what direction to go in.” The idea to sentence based on the results of an assessment tool, such as COMPAS, wasn’t popular initially. Prosecuting attorneys worried the practice would result in a trend in lighter sentences. Defense attorneys were concerned penalties would be stiffer. Judges’ associations thought it would remove too much of their discretion. But in Kalamazoo, each of those groups supported giving the evidence-based sentencing approach a shot. “There was previously a lot of push back,” Giguere said. “We set that aside locally because the leaders of our groups were all buying in. We were pushing back against the push back.” Others have also questioned the value of the lengthy assessment that can be time consuming to complete, but Hiller said it has helped provide a more complete view of how to help individual offenders. “For the first time we’re looking at what a person needs to not offend again,” Hiller said. “We used to supervise based on the crime, not based on the person and where they are in life. COMPAS lets you look at the whole picture.” The aim of the pilot is to provide judges with more information to consider about an offender and potential supervision and programming that could meet their individual needs to reduce their risk of reoffending. Since starting in Kalamazoo, the pilot has expanded to Berrien, Calhoun, Cass, St. Joseph and Van Buren counties, and to three courtrooms in Wayne County Circuit Court. The assessments were previously used briefly in some courtrooms in Jackson and Barry counties, as well. It is expected to roll out in Branch, Allegan, Barry, Ionia, Kent, Montcalm, Muskegon and Ottawa counties later this year, with the hope that it will eventually become a part of the sentencing process statewide. Judges participating in pilots across the state have said they feel they are getting better and more complete information about offenders and their needs, said Mike Keck, reentry specialist and COMPAS program manager for the Michigan Department of Corrections. “The COMPAS is not meant to determine incarceration versus community supervision or length of incarceration, it is meant to identify needs,” Keck said. “If we’re including more detailed information on (offender) needs it will only benefit them.” While the COMPAS assessment is a new addition to Michigan courtrooms, it isn’t new to the department of corrections. The department has been using the assessment tool for more than a decade to provide an in-depth look at offender risk and needs in order to determine programming and treatment. It is considered to be critical to effective intervention that can reduce recidivism. Its use in court began in August 2015 with the Kalamazoo pilot. Though it took time to reach this point, using the assessment in courts was discussed from the beginning, said Doug Kosinski, manager of the department’s Risk/Classification and Program Evaluation Section. “Everyone knew it was a logical way to go,” Kosinski said. “It gives us continuity from the very beginning of the case to the end.” Having validated information about offender risk and needs is important to determining the best course action to take to help prevent re-offense and ensure success in the community, he said. “That is very, very useful and valuable information to ensure we’re referring the right people to the right programs,” Kosinski said. As the pilot is rolled out on a larger scale, it will take time to see changes and measure its impact, Keck said. The hope is that supervision conditions will ultimately be based on offender needs, said Kalamazoo County Probation Supervisor Lara Neuman. “Now courts see why we’re recommending certain conditions,” Neuman said. “We try to tell people this is really important. It’s just one more tool in the toolbox and it doesn’t replace an agent’s judgement.” The assessment can only help offenders in the long run when interventions are tailored to their individual needs, she said. “We try to get as much information about the person as we can with the assessment and interview,” Neuman said. “If we know a lot about them on the front end, we hopefully won’t have to do as much work figuring out that supervision road map with trial and error.” Though it is too early to measure results, Giguere said that, anecdotally, the pilot appears to be successful in reducing probation violations and revocations. “I feel much better about matching offenders to resources in the community to better supervise them, rather than just using the same cookie-cutter probation order for everybody,” he said. “Anytime you can use the resources and the expertise of the individual agents and have them focusing on the specific needs of the offender, I think that’s a better use of everyone’s time. We have a better chance of actually changing behaviors and making sure these people don’t come back before us.”