The Public Eye

The Public Eye: Rearrest rate unchanged under California prison realignment

The Public Eye
The Public Eye

As federal judges pressured California to relieve prison overcrowding in 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown pushed lawmakers to send tens of thousands of parolees and lower-level offenders to counties.

The realignment plan enabled the state to reduce its prison population by 25,000 inmates and balance its cash-strapped budget. But so far it has disappointed advocates who had lofty hopes that counties would reduce California’s notoriously high rate of inmates who commit new crimes soon after hitting the streets.

Parolees monitored by counties under realignment have been arrested for new crimes at the same rate as when the state supervised similar offenders, The Sacramento Bee found in an analysis of state data. Sixty percent of parolees released to counties from October 2011 through September 2012 were arrested for new offenses within 12 months of leaving prison, the same rate as a comparable population of parolees managed by the state the year before the law took effect.

County officials point to several factors that have compromised their ability to change the state’s cycle of crime. Limited jail space for parole violators means that counties must release some inmates early. Probation officers have high caseloads, which prevent them from monitoring parolees as closely as they would like.

And while state funding has helped expand jail operations and increase the number of probation officers, counties say they haven’t received enough money from the Capitol to provide sufficient rehabilitation programs that can change behavior and reintegrate parolees into communities. Leaders at the California State Association of Counties, the Chief Probation Officers of California and the California State Sheriffs’ Association say they need more money for job training, mental health care and substance abuse treatment.

But criminal justice critics say county leaders could have spent more of their new money on rehabilitation. In the first year of realignment, counties budgeted 16 percent of the $367 million they received from the state for services such as mental health and drug treatment, according to a report last year by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center.

“Far too many counties have given the money to sheriffs to build out the jail population,” said Alan Hopper, director of the ACLU’s criminal justice and drug policy project in California. “Far too many counties have not taken to heart the intention and promise of realignment to address the root causes of crime.”

The state’s prisons chief, Jeffrey Beard, cautioned against early evaluations of realignment. No state has attempted a similar shift in correctional responsibilities, and counties are still coming up with programs after a little over two years, he said.

“We need more time,” Beard said. “I’m very hopeful.”

In his latest state budget Thursday, Brown called for $81 million to go toward re-entry centers, mental health services and drug treatment for offenders. The proposal, however, depends on the state getting a two-year extension from federal judges handling the prison overcrowding case. Otherwise, Brown plans to spend the money to pay for prison beds.

County leaders say they will lobby for more money to treat inmates and parolees. State budget surpluses are expected over the next few years, a dramatic change from when realignment began under a deficit cloud.

“Our investment in reducing recidivism and improving rehabilitation has been insufficient,” said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.

But counties will have to compete with a host of programs that suffered budget cuts during the recession. The state is obligated to spend a large share of additional revenue on K-12 schools and community colleges, and legislative Democrats want to create a new universal pre-kindergarten program. Public universities and social service advocates are clamoring for more money than Brown proposed giving them.

In realignment’s first year, 16 percent of new arrests for county parolees were for violent crimes, including 41 murders. Most arrests of county parolees were for drug and alcohol crimes and property offenses – 64 percent.

In 2011, the year realignment started, the Pew Center on the States found that California had the nation’s second-highest parolee rate of recidivism. One reason for California’s high rate was its unusually strict parole policy – everyone released from prison was placed under supervision for three years and returned for any violation, according to the Pew report.

An expert commission convened by state correctional officials in 2007 found another reason for California’s high recidivism rate: a lack of investment in rehabilitation. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation historically has not emphasized rehabilitation, as shown by the absence of that word in its name until 2005, the commission noted. Just 5 percent of department spending went to programs and services for offenders, in part because rampant prison overcrowding made it difficult to provide rehabilitation.

Realignment was conceived in response to a federal lawsuit over prison overcrowding and the state budget crisis. State leaders, however, promoted the changes as an opportunity to reform the justice system, with local government better able to provide community-based corrections that would reduce recidivism.

The Stanford report concluded that an important factor in determining realignment’s success is whether the state provides funding “that is sufficient to meet the needs of the offenders returning to the counties.”

Matt Cate was secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation when realignment passed and is now executive director of the California State Association of Counties. He said the number of offenders with substance abuse problems and mental health issues has been greater than county and state officials expected when they launched realignment.

“When I talk to county leaders, one of the primary concerns I hear is how to reduce recidivism,” Cate said. “Our big message this year will be: An investment in local treatment is a savings for the state, because fewer people will go back to prison, and all Californians, because there will be less crime.”

In 2012, voters approved a constitutional amendment that guarantees ongoing county funding for realignment. The counties will seek additional money through other sources, including the federal Affordable Care Act, which will provide an undetermined amount of support for mentally ill and drug addicted parolees, Cate said.

One of the most outspoken critics of realignment, Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, agrees that counties need more money for rehabilitation. But such funding cannot come at the expense of creating needed prison space, he said.

In Sacramento County, the share of money that has gone toward rehabilitation has been a source of debate.

Sacramento County needs more money to improve its rehabilitation programs for offenders, said Chief Probation Officer Lee Seale and Undersheriff Jamie Lewis. Some county officials and advocates have criticized the county for not spending enough on rehabilitation.

In realignment’s first year, the Sheriff’s Department and the Probation Department received all of the $13.1 million in realignment funding. The Probation Department wanted a greater share of funding for rehabilitation programs, but county supervisors approved a proposal that gave 68 percent to the sheriff and 32 percent to probation. Both departments use some of their money on rehabilitation.

That year, the county was able to provide rehabilitation to 13 percent of the 1,850 parolees it received, according to Seale. Those parolees must go to the county’s Day Reporting Centers, where they receive cognitive behavioral therapy, drug treatment and other services.

More parolees must receive rehabilitation if Sacramento County is to improve on its 57 percent rearrest rate for parolees in the first year of realignment, Seale said.

“We’re not serving enough people,” he said.

Among those who wasn’t put in a county rehabilitation program was Brian Keith Jones.

In December 2012, he was charged with shooting and killing Duane Lomax. According to the Sheriff’s Department, Jones’ sister got involved in a late night dispute on the road with Lomax and called her brother, who was living with her. Jones drove up to Lomax’s car and shot him, an investigator testified earlier this year.

The 24-year-old had spent much of his life locked up – in prison, jail and youth detention – and had a history of drug addiction and gang involvement. Jones was released from state prison last year and placed under the supervision of the Sacramento County Probation Department. Jones’ attorney, Robert Saria, said he will argue the shooting was self-defense, but declined to elaborate.

Jones has struggled with drug abuse, including a methamphetamine addiction, since he was a young teen, according to 2009 letters submitted by him, his family and his attorney in Sacramento Superior Court.

In August 2012, Jones was released from state prison, where he was serving time for assault with a deadly weapon, and transferred into county supervision. He was not required to go to the Day Reporting Centers, where the county provides therapy and job training, partly because he was already employed and partly because his gang background created a safety risk for him there, Seale said. The county also opted not to put him in a drug treatment program, even though he tested positive for drugs while under its supervision, Seale said.

Since that time, Seale noted, the county has begun operating its own drug rehab program specifically for parolees transferred from the state.

“He should have been offered (drug) treatment,” Seale said.