California parolees get a chance in community programs

Posted on May 4, 2008. Filed under: Crime, Crime Victim Services, Parole |

By Andy Furillo – afurillo@sacbee.com
Published 12:00 am PDT Sunday, May 4, 2008

California corrections officials are again diverting thousands of parole violators into community programs instead of sending them to prison, hoping this time the experiment doesn’t fail.

Since August, the prison population has steadily declined as the state pours millions of dollars into community programs like drug treatment and electronic home detention.

Four years ago, a similar effort collapsed. The Bureau of State Audits found in 2005 that the state failed to analyze or monitor the programs for effectiveness. Most of the diverted parolees either didn’t complete the programs or wound up back in prison anyway – including 242 who committed new crimes when they otherwise could have been back in prison.

This time, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, supported by top criminal justice researchers from around the country, is evaluating the programs as they roll out. The agency is also assessing the participating offenders for risk, trying to avoid violent public-relations disasters.

Legislative analysts say the prison population reductions could save the state $110 million through the next budget year, but officials say it is too soon to tell whether the trend can continue without compromising public safety.

“I don’t know the answer,” said UC Irvine criminology professor Joan Petersilia, chair of the committee that is advising Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on the state’s rehabilitation measures. “It depends on how many very low-risk people we have, and we really don’t know that yet. It also depends on whether the communities will step up to the plate and sponsor these programs. I think it’s an unknown.”

The corrections agency already has suffered one spectacular setback.

Last year, it released a parolee named David Kenneth Hamilton despite an assessment that Hamilton had “a high propensity for violence,” corrections spokesman Oscar Hidalgo said.

Although he violated parole by not attending classes for spousal batterers, officials did not put Hamilton back in prison or into a community program. On April 20, Hamilton, along with another suspect, robbed and killed a man in Foothill Farms, then torched the victim’s house, according to Sacramento sheriff’s investigators. Hamilton was later shot and killed while running from deputies.

Hidalgo defended his agency’s performance in the Hamilton case, saying that his “missing a meeting did not require an automatic revocation” of his parole. Hidalgo said the corrections department still is “absolutely” committed to following through with the new parole direction.

“We think it is important to find alternatives to incarceration for inmates to give them the best chance to succeed,” Hidalgo said.
Parole violators fill prisons

California churns tens of thousands of parolees through the prison system every year for violating the technical terms of their releases, such as missing meetings with their agents, hanging out with other criminals, not attending classes, testing positive for drugs, or failing to comply with any specially set conditions.

Last year, there were 73,657 parole returns to prison, with the average stay amounting to about four months. The result has been massive pressure on the prison system, driving the population last August to an all-time high of 173,614, including 20,030 who at that time were serving short-term parole violations or were awaiting a revocation decision.

In the next seven months, the population dropped by more than 3,600 inmates to 169,949. Short-term parolees in the prison system dropped by 1,500 during that period. Fewer new convictions, mostly for drug and property crimes, accounted for the other half, according to corrections statistics.

A federal class-action lawsuit helped the state reach the lower inmate numbers.

The so-called Valdivia case, settled in U.S. District Court in Sacramento in 2003, forced the state to conduct timely revocation hearings. It also required corrections officials to establish a “remedial sanctions” programs for less-serious parole violators.

Corrections officials shut down the sanctions program once its problems became apparent. After a court challenge, last year the state agreed to make available 1,800 new community drug treatment beds and place 500 more offenders on electronic home detention.

A special master monitoring the case found in November that the state had substantially complied with the order. Plaintiffs lawyer Michael Bien agreed, saying “I think for the first time, there has been a focused, sincere effort to actually come into compliance.”

But the state is only accommodating “a tiny percentage” of its short-term parole violators, and it needs to do a lot more, Bien said.

Parole officials said they are trying.

On its own, the state in the past year opened seven new “day reporting” and community centers for parolees, including one in Sacramento. Parole agents also have placed hundreds of homeless parolees into residential facilities, sometimes instead of prison, in instances where they make mistakes.

As of last month, 5,078 California parolees were enrolled in remedial or intermediate sanctions programs, compared with 1,899 a year ago – a 167 percent increase, according to figures compiled by The Bee.

“We’re confident this is a shift in our paradigm,” said Robert Ambroselli, deputy director in charge of the corrections agency’s parole division.
Parolees accept restrictions

Theresa Joseph, 52, a parolee with a history of credit fraud whose most recent conviction was for attempted robbery, these days wears a wristwatch-sized electronic monitor around her ankle. Her parole agent gave it to her last month when she violated her parole by taking a friend’s car without permission.

Joseph needs to be in her mother’s south Sacramento home by 8 o’clock every night, at risk of a violation. She said the restriction sure beats prison.

“It’s making me think,” Joseph said. “Don’t do anything wrong – don’t do anything wrong. Think before you act. Because the possibility is I could be back in prison. So yes, it’s making me more aware of what I’m doing.”

In some cases, parolees are volunteering for programs, even if it means they’re confined for longer periods of time. Tim Longacre, 45, chose to participate in the three-month Parolee Substance Abuse Program in a locked facility in Folsom and then do three more months in residential aftercare, even though he only faced five months of prison time on his parole violation.

“In (prison), you’re up on a bunk,” Longacre said. “If you get a book to read, you’re lucky. Here you can actually talk to somebody and get some feedback.”

Tony DeWeese, 27, who has been to prison 13 times during the past eight years, including multiple returns on parole violations, graduated from the Folsom program last week and is scheduled to be released Thursday.

“This is a chance for rehabilitation,” DeWeese said. “It makes you look at yourself and think, maybe I do have a problem. Maybe it was all me.”

The programs don’t come cheap. This year, California is spending $217 million on them, including post-prison drug treatment for parolees who complete in-prison programs, according to the governor’s budget. The administration is asking to increase the spending next year to $247 million.

State Sen. Mike Machado, D-Linden, whose budget subcommittee monitors prison spending, said the investment carries the potential for huge savings down the road.

“I think we possibly are looking at fundamental changes,” Machado said.

Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, R-Orange, urged caution. He said he first wants to see some data.

“They’ve implemented a lot of these changes without showing us how they’re going to improve public safety,” Spitzer said. “What are the results? Are these guys completing these programs? Are they getting new violations?”
Many states pursue change

Parole and corrections agencies across the country are asking the same kinds of questions. About 20 to 25 states are on the same parole change path as California, according to Michael Jacobson, director of the Vera Institute of Justice in New York, which works with state and local law enforcement agencies on cost-conscious crime fighting strategies.

“There’s a lot of ferment now,” Jacobson said. “And California is right there.”

Jacobson listed Kansas as a state that is a little further along than most, and its corrections chief thinks he is coming up with some answers.

In February, Kansas corrections Secretary Roger Werholtz reported to his state’s Legislature that two years into its parole overhaul, Kansas has cut its rate of parolees committing new crimes in half.

“What we’re doing here isn’t magic,” Werholtz said. “But you’ve got to take the emotion and the politics out of it, and we’ve been very lucky in Kansas that we’ve been able to do that.”

Werholtz said that to make the package work, corrections officials need to stick with it even if a parolee does something horrible.

“Those kinds of things will happen,” he said. “But if I can lower the aggregate numbers, I think we can prove we can make this state safer.”

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