Privately funded project to reduce recidivism begins in Ventura County (Ventura County Star)

By Megan Diskin, megan.diskin@vcstar.com, 805-437-0258

A new funding model that puts private investors on the hook for the cost of a social program aimed at curbing the rearrest rate of people on probation has launched in Ventura County. 

The Ventura County Project to Support Reentry is based on what's called the "Pay for Success" project that was first implemented in the United Kingdom. The local initiative involves investors paying much of a $3 million program that will test treatment strategies for 400 people on formal probation in Ventura County. 

In a news release sent Monday, the county said the local program, which has been in the works for more than a year, is the 20th "Pay for Success" project in the United States. 

Camarillo-based Interface Children & Family Services will provide the treatment, which is customized to each person's needs. Some of the services include trauma therapy, job support or moral reconation therapy, which helps increase moral thinking, said Erik Sternad, the organization's executive director. 

The investors will get back their investment of roughly $2.6 million if the rate at which the 400 probationers commit new crimes is about 6 percent lower than a control group of the same size, said Frank Chow, a program management analyst in the County Executive's Office. Investors stand to gain a profit of close to $260,000 if the rate is about 10 percent, he said. 

"The break-even point is 6 percent improvement," Chow said. 

To pay back the investors in case of success, the county applied for and received a $1.5 million grant from the Board of State and Community Corrections in May 2016. The amount will also be matched by county funds. 

The $3 million set aside by the county includes the profit margin, which due to a contract agreement maxes out at about $260,000, Chow said. 

Social Finance, a nonprofit headquartered in Boston, raised the $2.6 million to fund the "Pay for Success" project. 

"It's a broad public finance tool for policymakers and our elected officials to think about different ways to finance social programs to get better outcomes," said Tracy Palandjian, CEO of Social Finance.  

David Farabee, a UCLA researcher, will be doing an independent evaluation of the project, which is expected to span four years.

After the first year, Farabee will send program results to the county agencies and Social Finance. They will show whether each person has been arrested since the start of the project, Chow said. 

"If the treatment group is significantly better than the control group, then the county will start paying them back," Chow said. 

The payback amount in this initial phase is small, but if there is success in the second phase when there is more data about average recidivism rates, the payback amount is bigger, Chow said. 

The Boston-based company's sister organization, Social Finance UK, pioneered the "Pay for Success" project in Peterborough, England, in 2010 and its results show that re-offending reduced by 9 percent. The goal was 7.5 percent. 

Although Ventura County's launch was announced this week, probation officers have already been advising qualified offenders of the program.  

The probation officers were able to refer clients on Oct. 23, said Chief Deputy Tim Dowler, who oversees the adult services bureau of the Ventura County Probation Agency.

Dowler said they did not want to delay any services. 

So far about 23 people have been referred to the project, but that doesn't mean they're in the group that's getting services from Interface, Dowler said. 

The name of each probationer who signs up is sent to UCLA, where it is randomized. From there, a probation officer will get a call that says whether the offender is in the control group or the service group, Dowler said. 

Of the 23 people in the project, 14 are getting services, while the other nine are getting the "probation as usual" services, Dowler said. 

"It’s very transparent to the client. They know exactly what it is, and UCLA is doing a study on it," he said. 

Those in the project have been sentenced in Ventura County and can include people with convictions for theft, drug crimes or manslaughter connected with drunken driving. Individuals convicted of sex offenses or domestic violence crimes are excluded.

Probationers with a medium to high risk of re-offending — a level that is identified by a probation officer's assessment — qualify for the program, Dowler said. Risk factors can include anti-social or criminal behavior, issues with drugs and alcohol or peer association, Dowler said. 

Sternad said the project has had a strong start. 

"We’re really very excited about the program because we’ve seen it work already in the existing Core Connection Partnership we’ve done for three years now," Sternad said. 

Interface designed the program for offenders under Assembly Bill 109, which was the state's realignment legislation that transferred sentences for certain kinds of felony offenses from state prisons to county jails. 

Some of what the "Pay for Success" project includes is similar to the services offered with Core Connection, but Interface will be able to help more people in the project because its target is a broader population, Sternad said. 

The goal is to have 100 probationers signed up in the first year, and Interface will hire more staff over the years as the need arises, Sternad said. He was not concerned about being able to hire staff in a timely manner as the pool of probationers grows but said the demand was "not unusual" from other projects the organization has taken on. 

"That's something Interface has a lot of experience with," Sternad said.