Community Corrections keeps up with COVID changes

Caseworker Nicole Nyblod (left) and Administrative
Specialist Jennifer Oxier (right) help keep things running at the Community Corrections Division. (Photo:
John Markholt)

The caseworkers who used to oversee the operation in the King County Courthouse aren’t idle – far from it. They’re busier than ever.

Work Education Release and the Community Work Program closed down this year, after a long pandemic pause. But the number of people on Electronic Home Detention shot up over that time. It all spells huge changes for the Community Corrections Division (CCD). Like many countermeasures against COVID19, these appear to be here for the long term.

“Everyone has had to rethink things, and we’re no exception here,” said John Markholt, a CCD corrections program supervisor. “We’re pretty dialed in now with our changes.”

Remote work. A hiring spree. New monitoring equipment. Those are just some of the innovations that Community Corrections has taken on during the pandemic.

Work Release gave judges a sentencing option for people who were employed or enrolled in one of the county’s special treatment courts. When not at work or in treatment, participants were required to stay at the Work Release facility on the 10th floor of the courthouse – an old jail that long predates the nearby King County Correctional Facility. “This was the jail before the jail,” Markholt said.

Electronic Home Detention replaces Work Release program
Electronic Home Detention, on the other hand, gives defendants and sentenced offenders leeway to stay at home – so long as they stick to court -ordered guidelines. It’s the caseworkers’ job to make sure they do.

Electronic Home Detention was hovering slightly below 130 participants in late 2019 and early 2020. Then Work Release went away in March, as King County leaders worked with criminal justice partners on a flurry of moves aimed at curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus at DAJD facilities. The new biennial budget that took effect Jan. 1 did away with Work Release permanently, along with CCD’s Community Work Program, a diversion program for lower-level offenders.

Work Release cases averaged about 70 throughout 2019, then shrank to zero as the pandemic took hold. These offenders mostly shifted to home detention. By last summer, the electronic home detention caseload had risen above 200 people – and stayed there.

The workload is driven by what the court orders – and CCD needs to keep up. To deal with the influx, Community Corrections is hiring a half-dozen caseworkers and a new administrative assistant. “It’ll more than double the staffing,” Markholt said. “With the increased workload, there hasn’t been an increase in caseworkers until this recent budget.”

It’s not just the numbers that have changed, but the nature of the work. There’s new technology, as well as expanded monitoring on nights and weekends. Kekoa Jaber, a caseworker for the past 15 years, can now handle many of his clients remotely. He even telecommutes a couple of days a week.

“We were set up in a traditional way pre-Covid where they would come in our office and sit with us,” Jaber said of the clients. “Obviously, that’s changed drastically.”

That doesn’t always make the job easier. Every time someone on Electronic Home Detention deviates from their normal routine, it requires a lot of legwork – legitimate accommodations for work schedules, hospital visits or family emergencies all need to be verified. “I think we’re rolling with it,” Jaber said.

New GPS monitor rollout
In the middle of it all, the program started using a new type of GPS ankle bracelet to monitor clients. “It just happened to come out during the pandemic and we had to get used to a new type of equipment,” said Jennifer Oxier, an administrative specialist.

As Oxier gave a demonstration of the tracking equipment, a man walked into the lobby. He was there to get his ankle bracelet removed after 10 months, he said, now that his charges had been dropped. Oxier obliged. Relieved of the device, he asked her to pass along a thank-you to his caseworker.

That’s nothing unusual, in her experience. “Actually,” Oxier said, “I hear that pretty often.”

Originally posted in Roll Call, the DAJD newsletter, February 2021.