Exit Interview with Bill Damiano

What the retiring probation chief has seen, learned and is still mad about


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Humboldt County Chief Probation Officer Bill Damiano has less than a week left on the job and he's using the time to break in a new pair of hiking boots and clear out his office for his successor, current Assistant Chief Shaun Brenneman. After 30 years working in the county probation department, Damiano has accrued many file folders and a lot of perspective, some of which he shared with the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors on April 3 as it debated whether to back the Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act of 2018. The statewide initiative is being touted as a corrective to prison realignment measures such as propositions 47 and 57, and state Assembly Bill 109.

Damiano predicted the bill, which covers a lot of ground — parole, sentencing, DNA testing — would have a severe impact on probation's ability to supervise and reform its clients. The board, which earlier in the day had honored Damiano for the "heart and soul" he put into his position, rejected his advice, voting 4-1 in favor of supporting the initiative, with the caveat that staff prepare research on alternative legislation that might be less all-encompassing (Mike Wilson was the lone 'nay' vote). We spoke with Damiano about the board's decision and a number of other topics.

North Coast Journal: We understand you hold the record for most supervised urine tests, is that correct?

Damiano: (Laughs) I think Shaun [Brenneman] was just being funny when he said that. We often have a lot of female officers so, as a male parole officer, I would spend about half the day in the bathroom watching people pee. I was "The Urinator." I've seen some things. I could probably write a book on the things I've seen.

NCJ: How have you seen the criminal justice system change over the last 30 years, as far as clientele, public perceptions and public safety?

Damiano: I have felt like my role as chief is to really get out in the community and educate. And the criminal justice system is a complicated animal and I think it takes an awful lot of education. People have particular views — conservative, more social, pro social — [it] runs the whole gamut but the reality is when you have someone who has a very narrow viewpoint and just thinks people who do crimes need to be punished, you can't change their mind. That's their belief.

The biggest concern for the administrator are about corrections being lost in the equation because elected officials, district attorneys get elected on a tough-on-crime stance. Corrections, we're not sexy, we're not official, we don't have a loud voice but, as I was trying to say at the board of supervisors the other day, the reality is the majority of the criminal justice population is under our supervision. We have an immense responsibility and may be the most crucial piece of public safety because you can't punish away the stuff that makes people do crimes.

NCJ: How do you feel your presentation was received by the Board of Supervisors?

Damiano: It was about what I expected from elected officials that are responding to their constituents. They drive the tax base and they have loud voices. I appreciate that elected officials need to be responsive to their constituents. I hear the complaints that crime is up, drugs are up. But I tend to go back to, "Let's look at the true data and let's see if it's really up." I was trying to present facts that, here they gave us the whole TV dinner and part of that dinner was poison, and I would not recommend buying that dinner.

NCJ: What's the poison part?

Damiano: The part that affects what it is that we do [in probation]. It's taking away discretion to work with post-release-supervision probationers. It takes away our ability to use flash [incarcerations], the ability of probation to deal with technical violations, the things that aren't law violations, like dirty tests, failing to appear, things like that. So it changes our ability to do that and mandates that after a third violation a person will be sentenced — they just get revoked, period, no chance. Instead of that, they're going to force a court hearing. Seventy percent of the people who are in the jail today are in there pretrial. So they'll add more pretrial people.

Not only that but changing sentences, making more people prison eligible ... just further impacts the system. It's like the rest of that bill where you're basically saying, "We don't like the fact that parole authorities get to consider someone ... earlier than they used to." Well, we have to reduce the population in the prisons. We're under a federal mandate. Who do you want making those decisions? Parole boards, who are California representatives, or do you want some federal judge from God knows where to make that decision for you? I understand you're upset that you took away the punishment someone gave you but then look at the facts. How many people get paroled? Ninety percent of parole applications are rejected. Who's on the parole board? Retired cops, retired judges, defense attorneys — are you saying your fellow justice partners who are on parole boards are going to make bad decisions? What are you saying? Talk about what's real. It doesn't make any sense to me that you're upset with what the voters did. The voters passed Prop 57. The state didn't pass Prop 57. the voters did. Quit confusing the voters and quit lying to them.

I'm still angry about Prop. 47. It did some right things in decreasing penalties and I appreciate that. But the people who wrote it said we would get money for mental health and substance abuse treatment. Well, we didn't. Twenty-three public agencies throughout the state did. Every county was affected by Prop. 47, every county should have received savings from the state. Every one of them.

NCJ: There is a perception by many that they are less safe.

Damiano: Look at the crime statistics. The state data is available. There was a spike. The crime policy institute of California says there was a little bit of a spike. But let's not exaggerate. There are just wild accusations. Like, "The homeless problem in California, it's all A.B. 109ers." I get people calling me: "Your A.B. 109ers are all behind the mall." It's just not true. I'll go out there, I'll send my staff out there with [law enforcement] and we'll count them. Five percent of the people, maybe, have some relationship with the criminal justice system. They're my guys?

NCJ: How do we reduce crime?

Damiano: We do more things like Neighborhood Watch. We try to break down what our society has done in becoming a bunch of autonomous people focused on phones and not talking to their neighbors, and try to get people talking to their neighbors. We get security lights up and down the street. There's a lot of things we can do to prevent crime. Once somebody is already in the system, I think we need to engage them and give them the services to help them get out. Hold them accountable. The carrot and the stick works.

NCJ: Is anything making you optimistic right now?

Damiano: I'm always optimistic. I still have hope that people will see the light. I still have hope that our community will come together and provide those supportive services and a more supportive atmosphere.

The reality is, you can only help people who are ready to be helped. I always thought I had a good sense of who I could help but it turns out I was wrong. Some of the people I challenged and said, "I don't really see you doing it, it looks pretty bleak for you." And they took that as a challenge and they knuckled down and proved me wrong. Awesome! Prove me wrong! I love that.

I know I have a reputation for liking criminal offenders. And you know what, I do. They're colorful. And I've met some really awesome, incredible human beings on probation. I've learned so much. I feel so blessed to be in their lives. They've taught me a lot. The resilience of people. What I've seen is people who have had this much adversity, when they get their life in order, they can swing that far on the pendulum as well. They have so much joy and depth to their lives after they get their stuff together. That's an amazing thing to see.

Linda Stansberry is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry.



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