When 2,000 people on probation in Los Angeles County are unaccounted for, it is disconcerting to hear, especially for the public. But as always, there is context to a seemingly gaudy number.
Some background: The 1,844 probationers currently in a state of non-compliance and who have warrants issued for their arrests (known as absconders) represent 22 percent of the county’s population under post-release community supervision (PRCS). And PRCS designates a new group of probationers who are those specifically realigned by AB 109 and who otherwise would have been on parole.
But when you say 22 percent, or roughly 1 in 4, of those in the PRCS population, what does that mean? How many probationers in LA County were typically absconding (a fancy term for on the lamb, or in non-compliance with their probation terms) prior to AB 109? What’s the rate for the non-PRCS population? In these contexts, is 22 percent large in that respect, average, or actually better than the norm?
“When I was DAPO Director, the LA Region ran at somewhere approaching 25 percent absconders, sometimes more in some units,” said Tom Hoffman, former Director of Department of Adult Probation Operations for California and long time cop in the Los Angeles area.
“It was noteworthy if the number was less than 25 percent, so LA PRCS running at 22 percent comes as no surprise.”
Furthermore, while the vast majority of PCRS probationers are being actively supervised, only a fraction of the rest of people on probation is under supervision. It’s not at all uncommon for 25 percent or less of the total population on probation (excluding PRCS) to even be tracked day to day like most people think they would.
“It has only been with the advent of the AB 109 money that probation departments began to develop teams to specifically supervise the PRCS group and as time permits, actually go looking for an absconder,” Hoffman said.
“Prior to AB 109, only the most dangerous and currently criminally active absconders were overtly pursued. Warrants were issued for the remaining ones, but efforts to track them down were rare.”
And before AB 109, probation officers were seen mainly as social workers. They were rarely armed and their budgets were often slashed. With AB 109, not only are they dealing with more cases, but some of them are legitimate bad guys from the state prison system. It’s a situation where county probation should be operating at 120 percent of what they were before their budgets were slashed several times over the past decade. Now some of the funding is coming back via AB 109, but that is earmarked for the PRCS population, leaving all of the juveniles and everyone else who didn’t come from a state prison to be dealt with on top of the new cases, only without the accompanying money.
Bottom line: 22 percent isn’t necessarily pretty, but it’s historically par for the course in LA County and actually far better than what is happening outside the PRCS population.
All of this means that Los Angeles County does not have the capacity to handle much more, whether it’s through additional realigned state prisoners (which still could happen) or an increased use of split-sentencing, which allows those convicted to serve a shorter term behind bars and have an elongated period of community supervision (theoretically good for those who need treatment over incarceration).
And in that respect, to widen the scope, it goes back to the California corrections chicken and egg, only in this scenario, we know which one came first. The state simply sent too many people to jail, many who didn’t belong there in the first place, and overburdened a system not designed to handle the number of inmates its sentencing structure put behind bars.
Now Gov. Jerry Brown is between a rock and a hard place. The Supreme Court refused to hear his second appeal to the population cap it mandated, which gives the governor until February 24th (recently extended another month from January 31), to get around 9,000 more inmates out the door of state prisons.
To do so in the time allotted, Gov. Brown says that private prisons are the only way, much to the dismay of his SB 105 collaborator Sen. Darrel Steinberg. The private prison industry is certainly seeing a boom in California, with Gov. Brown contracting two private, in-state facilities the day before the courts ruled that he couldn’t contract out-of-state. But the private prison industry itself isn’t necessarily getting good press as a solution.
True success stories with long-term impact address root causes via evidence-based practices, along with some simple inspiration in the case of Marin County, to help people overcome addiction, mental health issues and criminal tendencies. And they involve taking advantage of Obamacare for truly long term results in those same areas of addiction and mental illness, as CA Fwd’s Partnership for Community Excellence has been saying across the state for months now.
The private prison stopgap will not suffice. Let us hope that Gov. Brown has one more card up his sleeve and somehow convinces the courts of the same, allowing for the time to implement the side of SB 105 that will truly make a difference.
Correction: the original version of this article stated that the court ruled against Gov. Brown contracting private facilities in state. It has been amended to reflect that only out-of-state contracting was made off-limits by the court ruling.