State Prison Shift Puts Skid Row at Risk

Posted on November 14, 2011. Filed under: Crime, Crime Victims, Public Safety Realignment |

Los Angles Downtown News

by Ryan Vaillancourt | Posted: Friday, November 4, 2011 3:52 pm

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES – In September 2006, city officials launched the Safer Cities Initiative, a plan to crack down on petty crime in Skid Row. The bolstered police presence led to a plunge in criminal activity and steep reductions in the number of people sleeping and dying on the streets.

Five years later, the progress has eroded. There are more parolees on the street. Crime is edging back up. Homelessness is again on the rise.

Some local officials fear the situation may soon get worse, as a new prison reform law is poised to send more felons to the area.

The reason for the fear is Assembly Bill 109, the plan to reduce overcrowding in California prisons largely by shifting how the state deals with drug offenders, who comprise 41% of the inmate population. The measure that went into effect Oct. 1 sends certain non-violent felons to county jail, where early release guidelines dictate that they’ll do less time behind bars than they would have in state prison. It also shifts post-release supervision duties from the state parole system to the County Probation Department.

Upon release, those offenders will be steered toward substance abuse programs and other rehabilitative services – the kind found in Skid Row.

Last year, 47,000 inmates served 90 days or less in state prison, most of them on a parole violation. The education, addiction and other supportive services provided in state prison don’t start until after 90 days, so those inmates had little chance at meaningful rehabilitation.

“The fact is, prison does not do well with these short-term offenders,” said Matthew Cate, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “We have to change the way we do business.”

If the so-called realignment plan works, officials say, more people will access rehab services, break their habits and ultimately reduce the state’s 67.5% recidivism rate. State lawmakers, who were ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court to reduce overcrowding, say the plan will translate to 33,000 fewer prisoners by 2013.

The question on the mind of stakeholders in Downtown is, what if it doesn’t work? Service providers and police officials expect that released offenders will flock to Skid Row, and although some will seek treatment, others will look for drugs.

Non-Violent, Asterisk

Officials point out that AB 109 applies only to non-violent, non-sex and non-serious offenders – known as non-non-nons, or N3s. However, the designation only considers the person’s most recent conviction. That means repeat lawbreakers, including violent criminals and some convicted of sex crimes, will still qualify for more lenient supervision.

The law relies on county agencies and service providers to do a better job than the state has done at rehabilitating chronic offenders. Funding for those groups, however, is tenuous, as the state transferred $33.7 million to Los Angeles County to cover costs associated with increased workloads for the Sheriff, Probation, Mental Health and other departments. The funds are only guaranteed for the current fiscal year.

“We have concerns about the permanence of the funding and also the adequacy of the funding,” said Reaver Bingham, deputy chief of the Probation Department.

Contrary to widespread fears, AB 109 does not call for or allow a mass early release, Cate said. However, there is a key change in how they are released: The N3s who get out early will no longer be subject to the supervision of the state parole system. Instead, they are released to the county Probation Department, which has more lenient standards.

Probation’s harshest penalty for violators is flash incarceration – a 10-day stint in county jail. Skeptics of the realignment plan fear that’s little incentive to stay clean for addicts and other chronic lawbreakers.

While realignment does not trigger an earlier release for current state prisoners, it will result in shorter prison stints for future N3s. Historically, state prison housed only felons sentenced to a year or more. County jail was for misdemeanor offenders and others serving less than a year.

Now, N3s will do their time in county jail, even if their sentence exceeds a year. This is important because, whereas people in state prison generally serve 50% of their sentence, low-level offenders in county jail often get released on probation after doing only 20% of their time, said Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for Sheriff Lee Baca.

Voluntary Treatment

Gov. Jerry Brown and other champions of prison reform have likened realignment to a paradigm shift away from hard-on-crime tactics and toward a system considered to be smart on crime. In actuality, it’s a shift born out of necessity, said Baca, who joined Cate on a recent panel discussion on realignment organized by the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council and Skid Row advocacy group Issues and Solutions.

“It’s clear to me if this trending continues that California is going to have to come to grips with the reality of where’s the best place to deal with drug addiction – in jail, or somewhere else,” Baca said.

Under AB 109, the somewhere else is the county Probation Department, with the help of community treatment programs. Although social service providers largely embrace a system that relies more on rehabilitative services and education than repeat incarceration, the emphasis comes at a time when shelters and nonprofits are facing diminished budgets.

More concerning, said Victoria Simon, executive director of Project 180, a Skid Row-based drug, alcohol and mental health services program, is that a month into the AB 109 era, the Probation Department doesn’t appear to be mandating treatment for those with drug and mental health disorders.

Bingham said the department is authorized to make treatment a condition for early release inmates, as long as their most recent offense relates to the need for supportive services.

Still, Simon, whose nonprofit received county funding to work with AB 109 inmates, said that so far, she’s not seeing treatment listed as a Probation condition.

“At this point it is 100% clear there is no mandated treatment. None,” Simon said.

Project 180 works primarily with parolees ordered by a court to use their services, which include aggressive treatment, sober living and constant monitoring. When treatment is voluntary, Simon said, it’s largely ineffective.

L.A. County expects that by the end of the year, some 5,000 early release inmates who would have entered the parole system will be funneled instead to county supervision.

It’s unclear how many offenders have landed in Skid Row, and because realignment starts by transferring supervision from the state to the county, it’s possible the area won’t see an imminent influx. The impact may only be manifested as new offenders avoid prison and instead get shorter terms in county jail, said Lt. Shannon Paulsen, who oversees the Safer Cities Initiative.

“We’re in a wait and see mode,” Paulsen said.

As Paulsen waits, she’s preparing for a spike in recently released felons. Skid Row has already seen an uptick in its convict population in the wake of a 2009 easing of state parole rules. Between June and August, SCI officers engaged with 250 parolees that officers had never before encountered in the neighborhood, she said.

Last year, a Los Angeles Downtown News analysis found that there were about 800 parolees living in the area bounded by Los Angeles, Alameda, Third and Eighth streets.

Police say homelessness is rising too. Every month, Central Division officers count the number of people sleeping on the street. Before the implementation of SCI, the number hovered at about 1,900. In April 2009 it had fallen to approximately 500. The trend started to reverse last year and in September 2011, officers counted about 1,600 people sleeping on Skid Row sidewalks.

Paulsen said that AB 109 does not necessarily pose a new challenge in Skid Row – it just threatens to heighten the dilemma that many say has long been at the heart of the neighborhood’s struggles: The city’s most vulnerable denizens live side-by-side with those who take advantage of their addictions and desperation.

“By the nature of Skid Row, this is where people are placed, where people who are addicted and mentally ill, who are your ready and available victims, end up,” she said. “It’s the homeless residents, the fixed income people, the addicted and mentally ill people who are going to be the victims of all of these social dynamics.”

Contact Ryan Vaillancourt at ryan@downtownnews.com.


Skid Row’s Perfect Storm

Five years after the launch of the Safer Cities Initiative, Skid Row has seen reductions in crime, homelessness and nonviolent street deaths. By most measures, the community is cleaner and safer, with more housing. Today, that progress is in jeopardy. In a three-part series, Los Angeles Downtown News looks at the state of Skid Row as it faces a new set of challenges.

This week: A prisoner realignment program has some fearing that more drug offenders and felons will wind up on the street.

Nov. 14: A recent court order that prohibits seizure of homeless peoples’ property on Skid Row sidewalks has had other consequences.

Nov. 21: In April 2010, the City Attorney tried a new tactic to combat the Skid Row drug trade. As police prepare to enforce it, the drug game is alive and well.

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