The State Worker

California prison rehab program fails to keep criminals from reoffending, audit finds

Puppies, prisoners at Mule Creek State Prison help each other with new program

A program called Tender Loving Canines is among the new and restored rehabilitation courses popping up in California state prisons since Gov. Jerry Brown began emphasizing programs that help inmates prepare to reenter society.
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A program called Tender Loving Canines is among the new and restored rehabilitation courses popping up in California state prisons since Gov. Jerry Brown began emphasizing programs that help inmates prepare to reenter society.

California prison inmates who went through certain behavioral therapy programs committed crimes at nearly the same rate after their release as those who did not participate, according to state investigators, raising questions about what recent ballooning costs have really achieved.

In a report released Thursday, the state auditor said the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has not reevaluated the tools it uses to determine whether an inmate should be placed in cognitive behavioral therapy.

It’s an issue that investigators said was especially problematic — and costly — in the years since legal changes altered the make-up of prison populations across the state. Potentially inaccurate assessment tools “could result in placing inmates in the wrong programs or in no programs at all,” Auditor Elaine Howle wrote in a letter to elected officials that accompanied the report.

The corrections department has also failed to make sure some existing therapy programs are evidence-based, meaning a “significant” portion of inmates have not been getting treatments that have been proven to help.

“These results are serious enough to highlight an urgent need for Corrections to take a more active and meaningful role in ensuring that these programs are effective,” Howle wrote, calling on the state Legislature to implement new oversight and monitoring.

Part of the department’s problem-filled rehabilitation efforts, Howle said, could be attributed to staffing shortages that plague programs in all California prisons. But that doesn’t account for the lack of performance measures targeting rehab programs and recidivism that should show what success looks like.

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The report, which was requested by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, calls into question how hundreds of millions of dollars in rehabilitation treatments have been spent, and whether the programs have achieved their goals since the state in 2011 adopted criminal justice reforms that were intended to downsize prison populations.

Efforts under the umbrella of “rehabilitation” work with inmates to address issues running the gamut from drug abuse to job skills and even literacy.

Since 2012, the corrections department has grown rehabilitation programming and training to each of its 36 prisons. Its annual budget for rehabilitation has also increased 27 percent in five years, from $234 million in 2013 to $298 million in 2018, according to the audit.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a specific part of rehab that can help people with mental illnesses or some form of self-destructive behavior. It comprises about a quarter of rehab programs within the department, yet Howle found that inmates who go through the program are about as likely to commit crimes and return to prison as inmates who do not participate in cognitive behavioral therapy.

The department “has not undertaken sufficient effort to determine whether these programs are effective at reducing recidivism,” the report reads.

The at-times blistering critique of how the programming is handled comes while the department requests more money for cognitive behavioral therapy.

The California State Prison, Sacramento recently submitted a request for new classrooms to support and expand cognitive behavioral health programming. Officials wrote in their proposal the estimated $6.4 million expansion was needed because they lacked proper space — some programming has been held in a former dry-cleaning warehouse.

San Quentin State Prison also filed a similar proposal recently to expand cognitive behavioral treatment space. That total estimated project cost is $7.1 million.

Vicky Waters, a spokeswoman for CDCR, said rehabilitation remains a priority and the department has been working to bolster its tracking systems. CDCR took the findings “seriously” and was making some changes, she told The Bee Thursday, adding that the audit used some data collected before programming and monitoring efforts were expanded.

“The department,” she said, “is committed to building a strong model to measure our rehabilitative programs consistently and to continue enhancing public safety by ensuring our inmates have the skills and resources they need for a successful transition back to their communities.”

In a California Department of Corrections video, prison officials talk about changes in the crowded system.

Jason Pohl: 916-326-5512, @pohl_jason
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