Yolo County DA’s Office Utilizes Advent eLearning
services in Restorative Justice Partnership
For many jurisdictions across the country, approaches to public safety that bypass traditional carceral criminal justice applications are being studied and implemented. Instead of using traditional approaches to criminal justice, prosecutorial entities, law enforcement agencies, probation offices and other public safety institutions are implementing diversion programs. Broadly, diversion refers to approaches toward criminal justice that move offenders away from traditional courtroom settings and toward methods that directly address the behavioral, cognitive, socioeconomic or resource barriers that led the individual to break the law.
When executed effectively, diversion programs can reduce recidivism, encourage community engagement and address the root issues that lead to crime. According to a 2018 study in Harris, Texas conducted by Michael Mueller-Smith and Kevin T. Schnepel, the use of diversion programs decreased an individual’s chance of future conviction by 48% 10 years after participation and improved employment outcomes by 53% over the same period.
In many cases, jurisdictions have found success forming partnerships with entities in the private sector to handle aspects of criminal diversion programming. This is the case for the northern California community of Yolo County. For over a decade, the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office has pursued alternative approaches to criminal justice by prioritizing diversion for misdemeanor charges and some felony charges. Within the past two years, the District Attorney’s Office has found great success utilizing the Advent eLearning platform, a product developed by Elizabethtown, Kentucky-based company AdventFS, in these efforts.
About Yolo County, CA/The Yolo County District Attorney’s Office
Located in the Sacramento Valley, Yolo County is listed within the Greater Sacramento metropolitan area. Adjacent counties include Sacramento County, Napa County, Colusa County, Sutter County, Solano County and Lake County.
Yolo County has a population of 216,403, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. The county includes four census-incorporated cities: Davis, Woodland, West Sacramento and Winters. It is also home to the University of California, Davis, which has an enrollment of over 39,000 students.
Of Yolo County residents over 25, 42.6% hold a bachelor’s degree or higher and 87.5% are high school graduates. The median household income of the county is $73,746, the per capita income is $36,036 and the poverty rate is 14.8%.
Law enforcement departments operating within Yolo County include the California Highway Patrol, the Yolo County Sheriff’s Office, the Davis Police Department, the University of California Davis Police Department, West Sacramento Police Department, Winters Police Department and the Woodland Police Department. Prosecution resources within the county include 28 full-time and one part-time criminal attorneys; 13 full-time and nine part-time investigators; four full-time and two part-time consumer fraud/environmental attorneys and one full-time child abduction attorney. Encompassed within public defense resources are 24 public defenders, five investigators and six conflict council members. There are 76 probation officers in the county.
In 2020, there were 6,263 cases referred to the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office by law enforcement, including 4,237 misdemeanors and 1,973 felonies.
The Yolo County District Attorney’s Office is led by Jeff Reisig, who has served as Yolo County’s District Attorney since 2007. Before being elected, Reisig worked as a prosecutor with the District Attorney's Office for nearly a decade. In 2021, Reisig was elected by district attorneys from across California to serve as statewide president of the California District Attorneys Association.
Since taking office, Reisig has focused on expanding diversion programs in Yolo County in order to redirect offenders from the criminal justice system into community-based programs. As part of this endeavor, the District Attorney’s Office started a program known as the Restorative Justice Partnership in June of 2013.
About the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office’s Restorative Justice Partnership
The Restorative Justice Partnership is an adult criminal diversion program. The program implements the tenants of Restorative Justice, which is a relational approach to criminal justice that involves a meeting between crime offenders, victims and community representatives. The goal of Restorative Justice in practice is to foster a dialogue between those who have committed a criminal offense and those who were impacted by the offense. As a result of this dialogue, a consensus is established among all parties involved addressing how the offender can repair the harm caused by the offense.
In his 1990 book Changing Lenses: A New Approach to Crime and Justice, American criminologist and Restorative Justice pioneer Howard Zehr describes the six guiding questions pertaining to Restorative Justice in practice. These include:
Who has been hurt?
What are their needs?
Whose obligations are these?
What are the causes?
Who has a stake in the situation?
What is the appropriate process to involve stakeholders in an effort to address causes and put things right?
Nicole Kirkaldy, Program Coordinator for the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office’s Restorative Justice Partnership, said when the program was formed, it primarily sought to lower recidivism among defendants of certain misdemeanor crimes within the county and address the underlying issues that led defendants to commit these offenses.
“It addressed how those defendants weren’t being best served by the traditional system because the actual penalty for those offenses usually didn’t address any of the underlying issues that led to the offense,” Kirkaldy said. “...Because those issues weren’t being addressed, oftentimes they’d end up back in the same situations. So, they’d reoffend and return to court and the penalty would be the same. It was just kind of a vicious cycle.”
Formerly known as Neighborhood Court, the Restorative Justice Partnership initially took inspiration from San Francisco County’s Neighborhood Courts program, which started in 2012. The Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office has used Yolo County’s program as a model when developing its own Neighborhood Justice Program.
The Yolo County District Attorney's Office has also worked with officials in several other counties in California to assist in the development of neighborhood court programs and has worked with officials in Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and New York City. In 2021, Yolo County’s program was renamed from Neighborhood Court to Restorative Justice Partnership to better illustrate its mission.
“For Neighborhood Court, we find ourselves constantly emphasizing the idea that this is in fact not court,” Kirkaldy said in a press release that accompanied the announcement. “There are no attorneys in our conferences and the volunteers are not a jury. Participants are not there to prove their case. This is meant to be a process to address the needs of those most impacted by criminal acts through honesty and accountability. By moving away from the name ‘Neighborhood Court,’ we are emphasizing how RJP is much different than the ‘court’ process and we are moving in a more accurate direction.”
The Restorative Justice Partnership works with cases reported within local police agencies that are sent to the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office. Civil cases are not handled through the program. Several misdemeanor cases are automatically routed by the District Attorney’s Office for consideration in the program, and line attorneys regularly review their cases to identify those that might be appropriate for diversion. Attorneys representing clients charged with lower-level felonies may also reach out to the program for consideration on a case-by-case basis.
Participants in the Restorative Justice Partnership do so voluntarily as an alternative to criminal court. The entire process is confidential and nothing expressed by participants can be used against them if they opt to forego the program in pursuit of traditional prosecution.
In cases in which a victim is involved, approval must be given by the victim before offenders can participate in the program, except where a significant mental health or substance use condition has been identified. Victims also can choose whether or not they wish to participate in the conference sessions.
The process begins with a pre-conference, which is managed by an objective facilitator and also includes a panel consisting of two to three community volunteers. During the pre-conference, the participant is walked through the conference process and is made aware of what to expect throughout the process. If a victim is involved in the participant’s case and is willing to participate in the conference sessions, they will also complete a pre-conference.
Once participants understand key functions of the program and what to expect as they navigate the program, they move on to participating in primary conferences. The conference process is divided into three steps:
The participant recounts the criminal incident that resulted in their participation in the program and explains any possible context behind their actions.
The participant and the panel discuss the harms and consequences of the incident to themselves, other people and the community as a whole.
The participant and the panel determine ways in which these harms can be addressed or repaired and discuss future intentions. Once these action steps are determined, the participant will sign a formal agreement to complete these action steps in order to complete the program. Once the program is completed, no charges will be filed in the case of pre-filed cases, and a dismissal will be filed in the case of filed matters.
For felony participants, additional assessments may be performed before the conference process to address any criminogenic needs or risks that are at play and supportive measures may be prioritized.
Panelists in the Restorative Justice Partnership all serve on a volunteer basis. Those interested in becoming panelists for the program must fill out an application, undergo a background check, participate in Panelist Training and Mock Conference Training sessions, and observe at least one conference.
The District Attorney's Office traditionally has recruited volunteers through community events such as job fairs, farmers markets, local university events and events hosted by the county government.
“One of the greatest successes of the program is the community engagement in this healing process,” Reisig said.
In addition to partnering with community volunteers in the Restorative Justice Partnership, the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office also works closely with local police agencies; local attorneys; the Yolo County Public Defender’s office; the Yolo County Health and Human Services Agency; Empower Yolo, a domestic violence center/family resource center; the National Alliance on Mental Illness; Mothers Against Drunk Driving; the Center for Intervention based in Solano County; All Leaders Must Serve, a local mentorship program for transition-aged youth; the Yolo County Office of Education and adult schools throughout the county; local libraries; CommuniCare, a federally qualified health center; United Way; the Yolo County Children’s Alliance; the Yolo Food Bank; and organizations serving the homeless, such as Fourth and Hope and Davis Community Meals.
When it was first established, the program primarily addressed low-level misdemeanor offenses, such as petty theft, public intoxication and noise violations. Today, the program has expanded to also encompass felony offenses. Though eligibility is generally broad, some offenses are not handled by the program, such as DUI’s, domestic violence cases (except for in cases with a clear mental health component) and sex offenses.
In addition to the Restorative Justice Partnership, the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office also offers other diversion programs, including Mental Health Court, Addiction Intervention Court and more.
Since its formation, the Restorative Justice Partnership has held over 2,450 conferences to date. From September, 2020 to September, 2021, the amount of diversion offered in cases in Yolo County increased by nearly 170%. Throughout this time period, nearly 300 cases were diverted through the Restorative Justice Partnership. Participants and victims in the Restorative Justice Partnership also have recorded an over 90% satisfaction rate.
“Those are people who would have otherwise been convicted of a crime and sent to jail or prison,” Reisig said. “Instead, we’ve been able to use this powerful Restorative Justice program with all of the different tools that have come with it, including the Advent programs, which have been an awesome add-on to our approach.”
According to a 2017 internal study conducted by an independent evaluator, only 4.8% of misdemeanor-level participants in the Restorative Justice Partnership were re-arrested within the first year post-completion.
“Instead of coming out of a courtroom with shame, they come out of this process thinking ‘I can make this right and become reintegrated into my community,’” Reisig said.
Traditionally, conferences in the Restorative Justice Partnership have been held in-person. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the program has been held via teleconferencing since 2020.
About the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office’s work with Advent
The Yolo County District Attorney’s Office first began utilizing Advent services in February of 2020. For the District Attorney’s Office, Advent provided an effective tool for criminal diversion efforts by offering offense-specific education to treat participants for the behaviors related to their offense.
Advent offers web-based solutions for prosecutors, probation officers, pre-trial and detention professionals. The company works with over 300 clients from across the U.S., including agencies in Kentucky, Colorado, Louisiana, New York, California, Pennsylvania and more.
Advent offers over 25 evidence-based, expert-created online education programs that address first-time or low-level offenses. Courses within Advent’s eLearning portfolio utilize a variety of teaching methods, such as evidence-based informational material, instructive videos, helpful links, self-paced coursework, and real-time feedback. Advent courses address a variety of behavioral issues, from alcohol and substance abuse to shoplifting.
Online courses offered by Advent are based on Transformative Learning and Cognitive Restructuring, and seek to challenge, modify and replace long-held erroneous thoughts or beliefs. Courses often ask participants to journal their thoughts, roleplay through scenarios relevant to the course and establish plans to modify their behavior.
To address language barriers, Advent uses native browser translation to present courses in the language of the student.
According to Reisig, Advent’s services became especially useful for the Yolo County District Attorney’s office as COVID-19 safety restrictions made in-person diversion methods impossible.
“Online training is something that has really taken off since COVID and now is a real core part of a lot of these discussions,” he said.
However, Reisig said Advent’s services are much more than just a necessity as a result of the pandemic.
“Coming out of COVID, we’ve realized there are a lot of efficiencies that can be embraced by using the Advent training programs,” he said. “People can complete courses from the comfort of their home, we can track their use of the programs, and there’s a lot of accountability that is built into it. So, we’re very comfortable going forward keeping this as a core part of our menu of options for people to choose from during the resolution process.”
When Advent courses are assigned to participants in the Restorative Justice Partnership, they are typically assigned as part of the participant’s formal agreement of restitution. With a wide range of courses offered, Advent can provide online learning courses that are specific to the offender’s restitution plan.
“What’s great about Advent programs is that there is a wide variety of different courses that are available online, that are very well-done, that from our review, provide a real in-depth, authentic form of intervention for the offender,” Reisig said. “When community members and stakeholders meet with the offender and talk about how they can make things right and make sure it doesn’t happen again, they have this menu of Advent courses.”
As the conferencing process in the Restorative Justice Partnership comes to a close, the participant should work to better understand the consequences of their offense and work to address the root of their behavior, Reisig said. To that end, he said Advent has been a great asset in helping participants reach this understanding.
“That’s where the Advent programs have been a real critical part of our evolution,” he said. “...In my opinion as a 26-year prosecutor, Advent has done a great job of fine tuning the subject matter into a very teachable, digestible course.”
In some cases, Advent services are utilized by the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office as a standalone option for criminal diversion in lieu of conferencing.
Advent’s standard grading scale dictates that those who score a 60% or above will pass the course. Of those in Yolo County who have taken an Advent eLearning course, over 88% passed their assigned course.
Since the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office began working with Advent, close to 400 offenders — both in and outside of the Restorative Justice Partnership — have used Advent eLearning courses. The most commonly-used courses have included the Corrective Thinking Course (approximately 21%), the Traffic Safety Course (approximately 19%), the Defensive Driving Course (approximately 10%), the Shoplifting Course (approximately 10%) and the Life Skills Course (approximately 9%). Other Advent courses used by the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office include courses on alcohol and substance abuse; anger management; animal care; boating and outdoor safety; financial crimes; firearm responsibility; hunting responsibility; impaired driving; underage alcohol and substance abuse; marijuana education; parenting; and theft.
According to Kirkaldy, at least half of participants who have completed the Restorative Justice Partnership took or are taking online courses provided by Advent since the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office began working with the company.
Of those who took Advent courses through the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office, approximately 46% were residents of Yolo County, approximately 15% were Sacramento residents, approximately 32% were residents of other California communities and approximately 8% were residents of communities outside of California. Considering age, about 27% of participants were between 18 and 25; about 30% were between 26 and 35; about 16% were between 36 and 45; about 12% were between 46 and 55 and about 15% were 56 or above.
In addition to offering online education courses, Advent also offers workflow management; client screening and approval; up-to-date case tracking; and reporting and analytics tools. Advent also uses mail, email and SMS communications to reach students.
Kirkaldy said Advent's backend processes have been a great asset for the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office.
“It’s really efficient,'' she said. “We’re notified right away when they complete their course or if they fail, we’re able to follow up and see what’s needed as far as an extension request or a comprehension issue. We update our system and the information is relayed very quickly.”
“The sharing of information is very fluid and it can be very efficient,” she continued.
Advent services have been proven to lower recidivism rates. According to a 2017 internal study, both the two-year and three-year recidivism rates of Kentuckians who completed Advent courses were significantly lower than offenders jailed in Kentucky during the same period for different crimes. Only 15.5% of those who took an Advent course were rearrested for the same type of offense within five years.
“I think it has been a powerful tool in helping to address wrongs in the community and restore victims and offenders, and that’s what our Restorative Justice Partnership is based on,” Reisig said.
The Yolo County District Attorney’s Office currently has a policy goal to increase felony diversions by 10% by September of 2022. Reisig said in pursuing this goal, Advent will continue to be a useful asset, along with other diversion methods such as apology letters, direct restitution for victims, community service, behavioral health and addiction counseling, career readiness education programs, financial assistance programs and child care assistance.
“Online intervention isn’t going to be right for everybody in every single case, but there are a lot of cases where this is a very effective option,” he said. “...The programs that Advent offers are a fantastic part of this puzzle.”
Agencies interested in developing diversion options for their clients through Advent can sign up for a trial account, a guided demonstration, or find more information by contacting email@example.com. To learn more, visit adventelearning.com
“For DA’s interested in pursuing criminal diversion, I think it is a very good tool,” Reisig said. “Advent has a good reputation and good product. We’ve enjoyed the public-private partnership we’ve formed with them.”