In 2016, leaders of the Santa Barbara County Probation Department in California decided to redesign the program funding process to include an intensive evidence review to ensure that the money was going to services that work.

They developed the new system in response to Board of Supervisors concerns that requests for funding or grants did not include sufficient information on programs’ proven ability to achieve desired outcomes in the community.

The first step in reviewing funding requests is the work of the county’s Community Corrections Partnership (CCP), which includes representatives from all branches of the local criminal justice system. The CCP oversees funding totaling more than $14 million annually. To ensure that proposals evaluated by the partnership are grounded in evidence, probation leaders created a screening tool for funding requests for criminal justice services.

The tool builds on the county’s work through its partnership with the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative. The Probation Department has coordinated an effort to create and routinely update a comprehensive inventory of adult criminal justice programs across the county. It then uses research clearinghouses to assess evidence of effectiveness and conducts cost-benefit analyses where possible. The vetting process, instituted in 2016, leverages this work to inform future spending.

As agency representatives seek money for new or established initiatives, the department requires them to complete the criminal justice funding opportunity form, which requests detailed information about each program and its goals, including:

  • Project description.
  • Target population.
  • Individual needs to be addressed to reduce the risk of criminal behavior (e.g., substance misuse, educational deficits, or family issues such as domestic violence).
  • Anticipated measurable program outcomes (e.g., reduction in repeat offenses).
  • Evidence of program effectiveness.
  • The program’s cost-benefit ratio, where possible.

The CCP reviews the forms at its monthly meetings and gives feedback to partners on how to improve the provided information, including assessments of whether programs are evidence-based. The partnership then makes recommendations on funding and grant applications to the board.

For example, the panel made recommendations last year on ways to improve an application for a technical assistance grant to address opioid use among people in custody. In that case, it suggested adding a reference to broader collaborative court efforts and expanding treatment options beyond methadone by adding two medications. The California Department of Health Care Services and the California Health Care Foundation then awarded the $25,000 grant to the county Sheriff’s Office. With this funding, the county assembled a team of representatives from multiple departments and hospitals that is focusing on improving access to medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction in its criminal justice system. The team also began training staff on how to help more people in the system get this effective treatment.

County leaders say the new vetting protocol has improved Santa Barbara’s use of evidence to make informed funding decisions and submit more competitive federal grant applications. For example, in developing an application for federal funding to expand behavioral health treatment services through the county’s Veterans Treatment Court, applicants used the review process to strengthen their argument.

Because the application included the program’s positive cost-benefit ratio, a clear description of the evidence supporting similar programs, and the CCP’s endorsement, the board could understand the value and make an informed decision to seek the funding. The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration ultimately awarded the program $975,000.

“Through the utilization of the integrated criminal justice funding opportunity process, we have improved our coordination and efficiencies between county departments,” said Tanja Heitman, chief probation officer for Santa Barbara County. “Not only has this mitigated silo approaches to grant applications and funding expansion requests, it also has inserted front and center our focus on—and accountability to—evidence-based processes and interventions.”

Instead of relying on anecdotes or a previous year’s spending, the county’s Probation Department now prioritizes evidence in budgeting and makes decisions based on program effectiveness and anticipated return on investment.

For more information:

Written by Sara Dube and Priya Singh. Sara Dube is a director and Priya Singh is a senior associate with the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative.


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