To the cheers of probation officers, a couple of deputy DAs and judges, a scattering of sheriff’s deputies and public defenders, and a roomful of thieves and recovering drug addicts, California saved itself a little money last week.
The occasion last Friday was the first-ever graduation ceremony for Sacramento County’s experimental “re-entry” court; the savings resulted from the 38-plus years of jail time a judge wiped off the books for six longtime, low-level offenders who made up the Class of 2015.
Sacramento officials launched the re-entry court in late 2013 as a local twist on Gov. Jerry Brown’s realignment program, which moved thousands of lower-level offenders from state prison to county oversight. The aim behind the special court is to redirect repeat offenders cycling in and out of prison whose crimes are mostly drug-related. The deal: They agree to plead guilty or no-contest to their latest offense and are sentenced to years in custody. But that sentence is suspended as long as they enroll in rehabilitation, education and vocational programs and actually succeed at them.
In the days before realignment, the Sacramento Six would have been recycled through the state prison system, which this fiscal year is running up a bill of $10.7 billion to house the 134,433 inmates in state custody as of Dec. 31 – an average of nearly $79,000 per prisoner. Post-realignment, they would be spending their time in the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center, at the reduced annual cost of $35,474.35 per inmate.
Either way, program supporters say, the pilot re-entry program has a documented money-saving capability and the potential to improve public safety.
“I thought it was a really positive moment for the community and for the county,” said Sacramento County Chief Probation Officer Lee Seale. “These are all people who had been in and out of the criminal justice system for years. We know that there is always a risk of failure, but what we saw is that, with support, supervision and some opportunities, many of them are going to rise to the challenge and turn their lives around.
“And for every offender who is able to get back on track, it means we get to redirect those resources back toward the people out there in the community who need criminal justice oversight and supervision.”
The pilot program launched in July 2013 with a handful of participants, grew to a couple dozen in the first few months and as of last week enrolled about 50 offenders. For many participants, a huge component of the program is the 90-day stint at a Volunteers of America residential treatment program north of downtown, where they confront their substance abuse problems. They also must sign into one of the Probation Department’s Adult Day Reporting Centers, where they take part in programs that aim to change patterns in thinking and behavior.
If everything breaks right for them, they’ll gain a better understanding of the way their criminal minds have worked. They are tested regularly for drug use, and have access to community resources that direct them toward jobs and self-sufficiency.
If they complete all the reporting center classes, stay crime-free and test clean, they graduate the program and their sentence is lifted.
A year ago, county officials reported they had enrolled about 25 offenders into re-entry court. Many have found it rough-going. Some remain in the program, their progress interrupted by dirty drug tests or probation violations. The Probation Department does not keep figures on how many have flat-out failed, Seale said.
The records on the six who graduated last week are similar: multiple arrests for drugs and theft, repeated trips to jail or prison.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lawrence G. Brown presided over the graduation ceremony, cracking jokes and injecting a loose feel in the big downstairs courtroom at the downtown courthouse, where friends and family cheered the offenders. One by one, Brown lifted the jail terms that had been hanging over the heads of the six.
“I tell everybody when they start this court, it is not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Brown told the gathering. “That’s not what this court is about. We make people work hard in this court. I think our community expects as much, and the only way a court like this can have credibility is if we can show we run a rigorous program with accountability, and if we can show results. The graduation today represents results.”
Michael Anthony Giannini, 33, was one of the six. He was being held on charges of car theft, receiving stolen property and methamphetamine possession when he enrolled in re-entry court in late 2013.
In volunteering for re-entry, Giannini took a deal in which Brown suspended a six-year, nine-month jail term. Last Friday, the judge removed the suspended sentence, although Giannini – and the other five offenders – will remain on probation.
“Do you know in your probation report, one of the ways they figured out one of the many thefts you committed was that they suspected it was you because of your reputation?” Brown told him. “But it’s not your reputation anymore. Michael, you are about as good as its gets in starting out our graduation team here today.”
Giannini thanked the judge and said he welcomed the second chance.
“I want to go as far as I can, but I wouldn’t have the chance without this program,” he said.
In an interview, Giannini said the graduation was “a step forward,” but spoke of more challenges ahead. He’s a certified union crane operator, but lately has been working as an in-home caregiver for his girlfriend, who was felled by a stroke.
“I did the program,” he said. “I worked the steps that work for me. But I’ve got a bigger problem now to deal with.”
Jason Wayne Rhodes, 41, had 14 cases on his record in the Sacramento Superior Court docket when he pleaded no contest in October 2013 to car theft and petty theft with a prior so he could enroll in re-entry court. Now, Rhodes has a girlfriend and a job in the garden department of the Home Depot in Carmichael.
“That’s a better shade of orange than the one you would have been wearing in county jail,” the judge joked about the colorful vests the employees wear at the home improvement center.
Rhodes came to court in a suit and tie. He celebrated after by taking his girlfriend to a crab dinner at the Thunder Valley casino.
“I’m doing fine, but the graduation is just one day out of my life,” he said. “I’ve got the rest of my life to live. I’m not going back to doing what I was doing before.”
Another re-entry court graduate had been to prison seven times. A fourth had been looking at 13 years in county jail.
Not all of the re-entry participants have finished so happily.
Barry Vierra was the earliest qualifier for re-entry court and once was described by Judge Brown as “the canary in the coal mine.” Early in his program, Placer County officials put out a warrant for his arrest for a probation violation. Sacramento County Deputy District Attorney Chris Carlson interceded on Vierra’s behalf and got Placer officials to pull the warrant while the offender worked the program in Sacramento.
Vierra subsequently failed to appear for a court session in Sacramento, and Brown put out a bench warrant for his arrest. He is back in jail, facing new charges of car theft and transportation of methamphetamine, as well as his old car theft case.
Sonnita Dixon joined re-entry court last year with a three-year, eight-month jail term over her head. Twice in the ensuing 12 months, her probation was revoked because of substance abuse. She also picked up a misdemeanor charge of driving under the influence – her 23rd criminal filing in 15 years, according to court records.
Brown has allowed Dixon to remain in the program, although he did sentence her to a 10-day “flash incarceration” stint to get her attention. Because of her ongoing problems, she said, she lost custody of her 23-month-old son for a time last year.
She since has enrolled in a live-in drug program as a condition of her continued participation in re-entry, and said she has been sober for four months.
“It set me back for graduation,” Dixon said of her slip-ups.
Seale, the probation chief, said the program should be considered a success even if only a minority of participants make it to the one-year graduation.
“Let’s not kid ourselves,” he said. “Some of the people who go to jail and prison, they come out and fail as well. Our goal is to find the right balance of community supervision and programs and custody time to try and get these clients back on their feet, back on track, and turn them into taxpayers.”
At the ceremony, the judge told the graduates it was incumbent on them to stay clean and crime-free to show the community the program can work.
“It’s not just that you’re graduating here today,” Brown said, “but that when we check up on you down the road, you’re still on the right path, you’re still making the right decisions – a year from now, two years from now, five years from now.”