The BJA-supported Coconino Online Probation Education (COPE) program supports clients living in outlying areas of Coconino County, Arizona. COPE includes a virtual mentoring initiative, providing clients with a support system they may otherwise be lacking.
Probation officers work to help people break free from a cycle of crime by matching the right supervision and service to the right person at the right time. But breaking that cycle of crime can sometimes prove to be a major obstacle for the justice community.
In Arizona, an innovative online probation program is helping Coconino County officers and citizens with this challenge.
Located in Northern Arizona, Coconino County is the second largest geographical county in the United States. The county is so big that it's actually larger than nine states, including Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey.
With a county this large, more than 250 probation clients live upwards of 50 to 100 miles away from the county offices in Flagstaff. For these clients, especially those without a driver's license, reaching the necessary services to successfully complete probation can be nearly impossible.
To support the clients living in the outlying rural areas, Coconino County officials launched an online probation education and virtual mentoring program in 2015 with funding from the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Coconino Online Probation Education (COPE) program enables clients who live in rural areas to communicate with mentors, complete online court-related coursework, and participate in cognitive-behavioral groups remotely.
County staff continue to travel the long distances to meet with their clients in compliance with state-mandated guidelines for community supervision, but outlying clients can now access classes and resources that COPE offers, which had not been available previously, according to Kara McAlister, program manager for COPE.
As a whole, COPE has been innovative in offering teleservices for clients, but the mentoring aspect within the program is also unique. Through COPE, Coconino County partnered with the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association to offer a virtual mentoring component that matches probation clients with mentors who provide support to clients related to issues including employment, parenting, budgeting, housing, education, alcohol and drug abuse, mental health, and other life challenges.
BJA supports COPE through its Innovations in Supervision Initiative, which provides assistance to jurisdictions that implement more effective and evidence-based probation practices that address individuals' needs and reduce recidivism. The program is 100 percent funded by BJA.
Mentors Provide a Support System
The mentoring aspect of COPE is voluntary; it's not mandated in a client's probation, but since the start of COPE, there have been 15 mentoring relationships established, according to Candace Ryan-Schmid, a mentoring specialist with COPE.
Each mentor-mentee relationship starts out as a 6-month commitment, during which the pair will communicate for at least 1 hour once a week. This can be done by talking on the phone, texting, by Skype, or by email. The length of a typical mentoring relationship is hard to determine, as some end when a mentoring participant reoffends, but others have lasted much longer, including one that spanned 2 years, said Ryan-Schmid.
Of the 15 mentoring relationships established, there are 4 currently ongoing. Two of those four have already hit the 6-month mark and are continuing, indicating that the mentees find value and success in working with their mentors.
In the remaining 11 mentorships, 8 of the mentees completed the 6-month mentoring period and did not violate the terms of their probation. Only 3 of the 15 mentoring relationships ended when mentees violated their probation, according to Ryan-Schmid.
For some participants in the mentoring program, the relationships they've formed have been critical in turning their lives around.
Tracey Guilbeau, 50, has been a participant in the mentoring program for about 6 months. Facing 5 years' probation for a drug-related crime, Guilbeau was in the county probation office when she noticed a television ad for the mentoring program. She sought more information and was later matched with a mentor who was close in age, and was someone who had been through similar situations in life such as addiction and domestic violence.
For Guilbeau, it's been a "true blessing" and a "Godsend" to be matched with her mentor, Belinda.
The two have since become close friends and talk via text or a phone call nearly every day. Guilbeau describes Belinda as a sister that she never had and someone who will always be there for her, any time of the week. She expects the two will remain in close contact after her probation and participation in the mentoring program is finished.
"Without [Belinda], I don't know where I would be. Probably in jail," Guilbeau said.
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