Tanja Heitman, who was appointed probation chief last December, talks about the role of her department in rehabilitating defendants.
Paul Wellman

Tanja Heitman was sworn in as Santa Barbara County’s probation chief on December 1 in a courtroom packed with judges and criminal justice workers. She began working at juvenile hall 27 years ago. Now she’s in charge of 350 sworn and unsworn officers handling more than 4,000 cases at any given time — offenders of all ages who have been convicted of all levels of crimes. Heitman is also overseeing the $1.5 million remodel of the juvenile hall on Hollister Avenue. The probation department underwent a jolt last year when her predecessor, Lupe Rabago, resigned under a cloud, the details of which have not yet been released by the Santa Barbara Superior Court.

Heitman is well respected by those who work in criminal justice. Retired judge George Eskin said he has been impressed by her “positive, no-nonsense, practical approach to solving problems by developing creative collaborative efforts with public and private partners.”

In 1989, Heitman moved to Santa Barbara County from Texas with her husband, who worked as a dog handler at Vandenberg Air Force Base. In Texas she had worked at a children’s psychiatric hospital, but Santa Barbara County didn’t have a similar facility. She eventually landed a job as a juvenile-institutions officer at a 24-hour locked facility. She could not help but wonder what she was getting herself into. But in all her years in the Probation Department, Heitman says she has never been bored. And now work is definitely not slowing down.

Heitman recently met with the Santa Barbara Independent to talk about her role as chief.

What does probation provide to society? My view of it is that probation or community supervision is not for everyone. There are some offenders who are truly too dangerous or their offense is too egregious. If you’ve murdered somebody, you should not just be put on probation. But we know that the majority of our offenders are substance abusers … and that is what’s driving their criminality. Locking substance abusers up does not remedy the problem.

Who is put on probation in Santa Barbara County? For those of lowest risk, 400-500 offenders are assigned to one probation officer. They report every month and don’t actually talk to their probation officer unless there’s a problem. They’ll pay their fines, their restitution, complete whatever programmatic requirements, terminate, and we’ll never see them again.

The next step up is the medium-risk-level caseloads, and those are 75 cases per officer. Then our traditional high-risk caseloads now are at 50:1, and our realigned high-risk caseloads are 40:1. Ideally, intensive caseloads would be at 20:1. That would be for offenders who were severely mentally ill or had other issues that required a higher level of intensity. We just aren’t staffed right now to be able to do that.

How has the Probation Department changed over the course of your 27-year career? If you go back prior to my time with the department, kids would get locked up in juvenile hall just for running away from home. We routinely transferred kids to California Youth Authority — prison for kids. But over time it was modified so that a juvenile had to actually commit a 602 offense, something an adult could get locked up for.

What about adults on probation? Shortly after these changes for juveniles, Senate Bill 678, or the Probation Incentive Act, tried to accomplish something similar within the adult criminal justice system. The prison numbers have gone down dramatically. There isn’t any indication that the crime rates have increased. It’s mixed news on how much recidivism has been reduced, but it hasn’t gotten any worse. Arguably in many counties it’s gotten better, and it’s costing a lot less, and we’re providing some programming options to adult offenders.

What is your opinion of the state initiatives intended to make the criminal justice system more progressive — Proposition 47, Prop. 57, and 2004’s Prop. 63? Are the impacts still a matter of debate? Definitely yes. I think even those that support rehabilitation and treatment for substance abusers see some deficits within these laws. If treatment were available, we would love to say that all substance abusers would enroll, but as we who have worked with them know, that’s not always the case.

Sometimes you have to force people to do what they need to do. What happens with that person who gets arrested for a misdemeanor, but doesn’t stay in jail because they’re a misdemeanant, and are ordered to get treatment? Often they don’t, and then they get another misdemeanor, and another.

How many misdemeanors do they get before we go, this isn’t working? And how much harm could they cause themselves in the interim while we’re trying to figure this out? I don’t have the solution … There’s probably good that’s coming out of all of them, but there’s some fallout, I think, from a number of the different initiatives that are taking some of our ability to really compel those that need treatment.

What are your thoughts on the new Northern Branch Jail? I have to believe that even if we don’t get the ability to house a substantially larger number of inmates, it’s going to be a modern jail that won’t have the deficits that our old jail does. You just have to recognize that the main jail is so old that it’s not a great place to incarcerate people. The new jail is going to have the latest standards. It may not be able to fully accommodate for the crowding issues that we have, but it’s going to have treatment space. It’s going to have options for people who are mentally ill that will be more humane and appropriate. And our largest population is in North County, so it is going to be responsive to where the population base is at this point.

In 2016, Santa Barbara County launched the assessment tool called the Virginia Pretrial Risk Assessment Instrument. The tool is essentially a checklist that allows investigators to more objectively determine if an inmate should be released without bail. How is it going? It’s probably not happening as quickly as we would like. The probation staff met with the court staff and came up with strategies to make sure that a greater number of defendants are reviewed for potential supervised release, and we’ll be touching base to gauge what’s working, what’s not, and how it can be improved.

How do you judge what is the best plan for those put on probation? What works for one may not work for another. And what you know about that offender changes over time. What’s presented when they were first arrested may only be a fraction of what the issues are, and when you’re visiting them at their home and seeing the totality of the situation, you may realize, okay, I need to reassess where we’re going with this, especially with those who have mental illness and substance-abuse issues, trauma issues. There is no magic. Everybody is going to be different.


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