(photo credit: Christian Senger)
Combining a shift of some qualifying inmates from prison to jail with an investment in post-release services, Realignment is supposed to work as an antidote to the revolving door of recidivism in California. But key to Realignment actually working is for these post-release services to be delivered in a way that keeps people from re-offending.
The question is simple: Is that actually happening? California Forward spoke to two Los Angeles drug treatment and homeless services groups as well as both LA County Probation and Sheriff’s Departments to find out whether the social services web was easily navigated or a tangled roadmap to a repeat stint behind bars.
Mark Faucette, Vice President of the Amity Foundation, described a homeless services world dramatically altered by AB 109. According to Faucette, prior to Realignment when state parole was in charge of the released prisoners, there was stronger coordination in referring former inmates to shelters and treatment centers. “They were referrals that were heavily coordinated,” said Faucette. “I met with Teri McDonald in the Sheriff’s Department, and there were thousands of parolees we could do outreach to.”
Since the change in supervision and program referral responsibility from parole to probation, the Amity Foundation has seen a major change in its operations. Prior to AB 109, Amity had a far higher retention rate of referred parolees. Now, Faucette says that either people on probation are skipping out on the programs quickly, or just aren’t showing up at all.
“The best we can do is say here’s a pamphlet, here are shelters in your area,” said McDonald, Assistant Sheriff of Los Angeles County. “We can’t say, “go stay in this program.’” McDonald explained to California Forward the process inmates go through 90 days prior to release: the community transition unit begins to interact with inmates looking for what their transition needs are, but inmates are falling through the cracks.
“We’re nowhere near hitting 100 percent of that population,” McDonald said.
Margarita Perez, Assistant Chief Probation Officer of LA County, explained probation’s role in preparing individuals for release, but also stressed that AB 109 hasn’t changed exactly who is being released from custody, it’s just shifted their supervision from State Parole to County Probation. Under the current system, probation receives a pre-release packet that identifies the risks and needs unique to each individual when he/she is released.
“What’s his risk? What are his needs? Does he have a place to live? We evaluate the case and start planning not only from the onset but the long term,” said Perez. A Probation Officer reviews each case file before release to determine the risk the parolee/probationer represents to reoffend as well as the specific rehabilitative programming needs each individual requires. Based on the findings of this review, a case management plan is developed that addresses each of these areas of concern.
But Faucette says what seem like positive referral numbers to his facility aren’t translating to completed treatment. “It looks really great because they refer 10,000 people into treatment,” he said. “But you start drilling down to how many actually showed up, it’s in the hundreds.” Faucette laments the fact that while Amity tries to encourage and mentor each participant, the former inmates are free to come – and mostly go — as they please. “They’re bouncing around all these different facilities before they end up back in county jail,” Faucette said. “A guy here was using meth, bounced around six different programs, and he blew off the 6th one. He goes before the court, and he gets six years in county jail.”
So why is there such a discrepancy between the degree to which former inmates that were on parole prior to AB 109 followed through on treatment referrals versus former inmates that are now on probation? Probation lacks the sentencing leverage that parole once had before AB 109. “There needs to be swift and sure punitive consequence to encourage the majority of these people into treatment,” said Tom Hoffman, former Director of the CDCR, Department of Adult Parole Operations. “The leverage should include as one option a period of confinement.”
AB 109 shifted incarceration responsibilities for probation and the vast majority of parole violators to the already crowded county jails. “They don’t have the space, so most violators will serve only a fraction of the sentenced term and in some counties the local jail will not accept these violators at all” Hoffman said. “Parolees and probation violators are keenly aware of this reality, so there is often little incentive to cooperate.”
If services aren’t being delivered effectively to former inmates, the risk of serious recidivism only grows. And if former inmates that have no interest in getting treatment don’t have a legitimate consequence hanging over them should they not follow through, AB 109 can’t accomplish the overall goal of preventing people from reoffending.
Drug and mental health treatment goes hand-in-hand with reducing homelessness. Marsha Temple, Executive Director of the Integrated Recovery Network, predicted early on that there was going to be a housing problem once AB 109 got underway. “People have been in jail for two or three years, it’s not like they’re going to get out and get the keys from their old apartment and walk in.”
“I started going to meetings when AB 109 was anticipated,” said Temple. “I don’t think this was ever considered with AB 109 – it was never a question of housing.”
Faucette says the issue of housing was discussed – just not enough. “That came up, but I don’t think people knew how important it is,” he said. But no amount of funding will house someone that doesn’t want to be housed. “If an individual chooses to be homeless, they can be homeless,” said Perez. “There’s no law against that.”
“Our job is to help those under our supervision effectively transition back into the community,” Perez said. “It’s their obligation to work cooperatively with the Department of Social Services and locate an appropriate place to live. Simply stated, County Probation does not have the economic ability or the legal mandate to locate and secure permanent housing for those under their supervision. It is Probation’s obligation to make the appropriate referrals for housing, drug treatment, anger management or whatever is needed.”
Perez did go on to say people do generally find somewhere to live within their allotted 90 days in a shelter. On average they stay about 70 to 75 days before they move on to a location, and if it takes them longer, Probation staff are flexible and 90 days isn’t a hard number.
Los Angeles County already has its work cut out for it due to its overwhelming size, and a dramatic shift in corrections policy has certainly complicated matters. “The vast population that we’re expected to manage with our significant resource shortage has really made it a challenge,” said Perez.
Whether or not Realignment is a success – and two years in it’s difficult to say with certainty whether it is or is not – is going to depend on recidivism rates. The key to solving California’s prison problem isn’t just about figuring out where to put everyone, it’s about preventing even more prisoners from joining them. The most likely to go to jail are those that have been there before; a closer eye needs to be kept on the recently released to make sure they’re taking advantage of the services offered with AB 109 funding, and there has to be a legal mechanism to ensure that. If that doesn’t happen, California is right back where it started.