Sacramento attorneys push alternative sentencing option; convicts say it changes lives

In July, a judge offered Charles Evins the chance to get out of jail two months early – in time for his daughters’ August birthdays – simply by enrolling in a life-skills program. He jumped at the opportunity.

It was a “get out of jail free card,” said Evins, who was serving a one-year sentence for burglary. It wasn’t because he felt the need to change. Not at first.

But in the three months that Evins has been enrolled in Ascend, he says, the alternative sentencing program run by two Sacramento-area criminal defense attorneys has proven to be more than an escape from custody. The curriculum, and the two women behind it, are helping him get his “mind straight,” he said. Committed to freeing himself from a criminal pattern that started in middle school, Evins imagines an education, a career in medicine, and a life better and more productive than his first 23 years.

And perhaps most important for the young father, the program has offered support as he navigated an emotional custody dispute with the mother of his two girls – all while sober for the first time since eighth grade.

“I appreciate Ascend a lot, actually, now,” said Evins, who credits the program with helping him achieve a recent custody agreement. “Other programs I’ve been to – they just speak, speak, speak and not really show any action. Ascend, they not only speak about it, they actually (act).”

Over the last two years, as California worked to ease prison overcrowding by transferring thousands of lower-level offenders to county jails, debate has intensified over alternative sentencing options that could open up jail space and keep convicts from re-offending. In Sacramento County, attorneys Christine Morse Galves and Toni Carbone have created a program they say is changing the lives of offenders at a far lower cost than incarcerating them – a model they say can be implemented anywhere.

Created in 2010, Ascend has been a labor of love for Morse Galves, 45, and Carbone, 40, who consider themselves social workers as much as attorneys. Both longtime defense attorneys, they said they grew tired of seeing clients stuck in a revolving door of crime and punishment. They didn’t see adequate options for offenders who wanted real change but needed treatment, therapy and support to achieve it.

“There’s only so much you can do as a defense attorney,” Carbone said. “(Leading Ascend) feels like being in a time machine, I guess. I teach them the things I’ve learned to help them move in the other direction.”

She and Morse Galves envisioned a program that would teach offenders how to change their thinking and behavior, as well as introduce them to better nutrition, exercise and other lifestyle choices. They wanted an approach rooted in evidence rather than intuition, and partnered with professors from California State University, Sacramento, who helped them develop a curriculum at no cost.

The program draws on cognitive behavioral therapy, which theorizes that by breaking down how a person thinks, feels and then acts, instructors can help an offender identify – and break – thought patterns that lead to crime. Morse Galves and Carbone go further, teaching basic life skills such as responsibility and time management. They promote nutrition through trips to Whole Foods and finish classes with yoga and breathing exercises. They talk about the importance of building a “pro-social network,” or a community of people that can help one move forward. They answer calls and texts at all hours to deal with questions and temptations.

“It’s almost as if they’re doing life coaching,” said Jennie Singer, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of criminal justice at Sacramento State who has been involved with Ascend. “What they provide these people is beyond something you can find almost anywhere.”

The attorneys began pitching the program in 2010, taking their case before Sacramento County’s Intermediate Punishments Committee, a panel that includes judges and law enforcement officials. That led to further meetings and curriculum development. In 2011, judges referred the program’s first clients as an alternative to jail time.

Ascend gained more participants in January, when the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department signed a contract for services. The contract targets offenders halfway through their jail sentences who participated in rehabilitation programs while in custody. The offenders are released on home detention – their movement is limited and tracked by ankle monitors – to finish their sentences with Ascend.

The Sheriff’s Department has referred 11 offenders, nine of them “AB 109ers” – inmates who went to county jail rather than prison because of the state’s realignment plan.

Each offender’s participation costs the Sheriff’s Department about $1,200 per month, typically for four months, said sheriff’s Capt. Milo Fitch. He said the fees – paid with local, state and federal funds earmarked for corrections and rehabilitation – pale in comparison to the $30,000 a year it costs to house an inmate in county jail, not to mention the price the community pays when those inmates reoffend.

“If we can show successes where these people might have been a burden on society … if we can change them so they’re productive in society, that’s a minor cost,” he said.

Tracking the progress

Since its inception, Ascend has served 61 offenders, all sentenced at the time for crimes considered nonviolent. Fewer than 15 percent have reoffended, according to Morse Galves. By contrast, the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation recently reported a recidivism rate of 64 percent for its adult prison population.

Morse Galves and Carbone are tracking anecdotes of progress beyond recidivism, such as former students doing well in school – one continues to bring them his grades – or starting functional families.

Another marker of success came in August, Morse Galves said, when two of the program’s “AB 109ers” enrolled in community college while still technically in custody, getting permission to attend classes on campus. Four more are expected to begin classes in the spring.

“Sacramento’s way ahead of the game – by taking (Assembly Bill 109) people and releasing them to a program and that program getting them into college,” she said. “I don’t know any other county that’s doing anything like that.”

Twice a week, Ascend’s clients gather at the Sacramento Career Center for three-hour classes largely taught by Carbone and Morse Galves. Each class begins with a recitation of the rules – “No drugs!” the students say in unison; “Be on time!”

In addition to attending class, students check in with Rose Gilbert, the program coordinator, every day, even on weekends and holidays. And each week they complete six “personal service” hours, time spent improving their lives. That can include applying for jobs or getting a driver’s license.

The classes are casual, with Ascend’s 12 current students, mostly men, sipping coffee and enjoying organic snacks. But the lessons given by the attorneys are intense.

In one recent class, Carbone discussed probation violations and used a whiteboard to illustrate the labyrinth they create. The lesson emphasized how easy it is for an offender to violate the terms of probation if he doesn’t understand the law, such as what constitutes conspiracy or “constructive possession.”

Students tried a role-playing activity in which a probation officer visits a home and finds drugs in a backpack belonging to the probationer’s roommate. The students followed closely as the instructors explained how everyone in the house was likely to get caught up in the mess.

“What you guys are doing is picking up on what’s realistic in life,” Carbone said. “That’s why we say, ‘These are the tough decisions in life.’”

‘A privilege to be here’

During another class, as students prepared for a rock-climbing trip, they watched short videos about famous climbers. A discussion followed about one climber’s socioeconomic status and whether his eccentric lifestyle was “pro-social” or “anti-social.”

Rockclimbing is a good activity for Ascend students, Morse Galves and Carbone said, because of the symbolism and because it’s a hobby embraced by “pro-social” people who are likely to be welcoming to convicts trying to right their ways. The owners of Granite Arch and Pipeworks, for example, have opened their climbing gyms to the program for free.

Mark Gimlen, who has been in the program almost three months, was among those who tackled a wall during a recent trip to Pipeworks. He said that since his release from Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center, where he was serving a sentence for receiving stolen property, he has been committed to finding a new way in life – and Ascend is helping.

Gimlen, 49, grew up a successful ball player in Tahoe Park. He said his life crumbled after his mother died of cancer when he was about to leave for college. He ran from his problems, he said, “and totally messed up my life.” He has been in prison four times in the last 12 years, mostly for drug-related crimes, and to jail a half-dozen times.

He said Morse Galves and Carbone have provided emotional support that was largely missing from his life. With their help, he is back in school, studying sports management at Sacramento City College. He lives with his ex-wife, and is working to rebuild the relationships his crimes destroyed.

“It’s a privilege to be here, to have the help they offer,” Gimlen said. “Everything in my life right now is a privilege.”

The attorneys take heart in cases such as his – glimpses into the change they help create. Neither woman is paid for her work with Ascend. Carbone gives her time while juggling a full caseload at her law practice; Morse Galves has largely left hers to work with Ascend.

“That’s not what we’re here for,” Morse Galves said of the lack of pay. “We’re here because our clients kept coming back and it was breaking our heart. And we owe it to the judges because we promised them we’re going to do this, and we’re going to make it work.”