Thursday, September 22, 2011
In Monterey County’s “situation room” at the county probation department, local law enforcement and public health’s top brass – Sheriff Scott Miller, Probation Chief Manuel Real, District Attorney Dean Flippo, Chief Judge Timothy Roberts and more than a half dozen others – sit around a conference table. Massive binders lay heavy before them. Their faces reveal intense focus.
The task at hand: determining how to handle hundreds of former state prisoners being shifted by order of the U.S. Supreme Court – and California legislation – to local control when the county jail is already overcrowded, the probation department’s short-staffed and social service organizations are cash-strapped.
These inmates are what officials loosely call “triple-nons” – non-violent, non-sexual and non-serious criminals.
A list of the parolees provided by the county, with the names redacted, illustrates why there might be some disagreement over what constitutes “non-serious.” (More on that in a minute; see www.mcweekly.com/AB109 for the list.)
But offenders who fit the bill and are sentenced after Oct. 1 will do their time in county jail instead of state facilities. Other would-be state prisoners, recently released parolees or just-arrested offenders awaiting trial, will be eligible for home detention and alternative custody, with police and probation using electronic monitoring to track their whereabouts.
County leaders know they can’t count on the state for help.
“We’ve got a $20 million mandate from the state and a $4 million budget,” says Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Jeff Budd, who oversees the jail and who’s already triple-bunking inmates at the overcrowded facility in Salinas. “This is never going to work well.”
Flippo says the state’s money isn’t enough – for prosecutors or public defenders – to cope with a looming onslaught of court cases he predicts will happen when triple-nons re-offend. “We’re getting a fixed amount for an increased workload.”
Although their departmental prerogatives differ (one wants fewer inmates; another wants more convictions), this group sees eye-to-eye on one fact: The county is fiscally screwed. For this Community Corrections Partnership, which has been meeting weekly since July, public safety is a priority.
But so is justice.
“The worst-case scenario for me,” Budd says, “is that judges will sentence people to jail, and we’re even more overcrowded. We get over capacity, and we face a federal cap or a takeover.”
Some in the room wonder aloud whether judges should take jail overcrowding and incarceration costs into consideration when rendering rulings.
“Just because a budget balances in a certain way doesn’t change how you feel about a case,” says Roberts, presiding judge of the Monterey County Superior Court.
“We’re going to do what we feel is appropriate, given the case,” Flippo says.
The tension in the conference room builds. Nobody shouts, but everyone simmers. It’s Real who breaks the silence.
“Electronic monitoring outside of jail and our adult day reporting center can help ease the burden,” he offers.
Pacific Grove Police Chief Darius Engels chimes in: “Can local law enforcement play a role in e-monitoring?” The conversation’s tone shifts as the group brainstorms how to physically and electronically track prisoners and ensure their state criminal and medical records follow them to Monterey County. But even the most productive conversation can’t close the gap between the money the county needs and what the state’s willing to give.
“We’re in limbo,” Flippo says. “What do we do?”
Several of the men heave sighs of resignation at what they call an unfunded mandate that passes the buck – and the pain – from the state to the counties.
The first 25 offenders will be released from various state prisons – a list that includes one convicted burglar doing time at the supermax prison Pelican Bay, where convicts considered the highest security risks are housed – starting Oct. 1. They’ll be dropped off at the nearest bus station with $200 cash. From there, they have 48 hours to get themselves to Salinas and check in with the probation department.
If they don’t make the cut-off, they’ve officially violated the terms of their release.
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Assembly Bill 109 is Gov. Jerry Brown’s “realignment” plan to shift tens of thousands of inmates from state to county custody, either by moving them to county jails or placing them under community supervision. Brown’s marching orders came straight from the top: In May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that California must reduce its prison population by 30 percent (roughly 34,000 inmates) to tackle the overcrowding that has led to unsafe and unsanitary conditions.
The ruling is the culmination of a half-decade of legal wrangling over California’s corrections system. A pair of class-action lawsuits, whose plaintiffs joined forces in 2006, alleged that overcrowded jails led to substandard medical care for prisoners and violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
In siding with the plaintiffs, the judge went a step further, saying poor health care was responsible for the deaths of about 50 prisoners a year.
A three-judge panel first ordered a prisoner reduction in 2008. The state appealed, citing federal court interference with state prison management. The panel rejected the appeal and in January 2010, the state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming a thinning of prisoners would compromise public safety. The high court took up the case in June 2010, and on May 23 declared California’s prison crowding unconstitutional and set a date for uncrowding the prisons to begin.
“Three hundred people that we worked hard to convict will not go to state prison,” says Flippo, the six-term district attorney. He sees the triple-nons as a threat to public safety – especially because he’s seen the list of the first 25 prisoners coming here Oct. 1.
“We’ve got one who’s been to prison three, four times,” Flippo says.
True, the triple-nons aren’t murderers or sex offenders, but they are thieves, vandals, drug dealers, drunk drivers and other chronic disturbers of the peace.
In the situation room, you can almost hear the clock ticking.
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“Business is good,” Jeff Budd says as he rounds a bend in the jail’s maze of hallways, pointing out the rubber-walled rooms for the violent and mentally unstable inmates and the single cells, “for those who don’t play well with others.”
Some inmates look bored under the jail’s dull fluorescent lights, while others look poised for trouble – especially the crowd of barefoot men clad in orange and white striped jumpsuits and crammed into a temporary holding cell, just off the streets and awaiting booking.
Inmates who sleep three to a bunk in the larger pods don’t always play nice, either.
“If we’re lucky, we have two fights a day,” Budd says. The staff does what it can to keep prisoners separated by race, offense and gang affiliation (members of Salinas’ notorious Norteño and Sureño gangs are housed in separate pods), but even expert vigilance by law enforcement veterans can’t prevent every shower shanking. And that’s before the jail has to find room for an additional 364 state prison inmates over the next two years – the number of triple-nons officials believe will re-offend, and those who end up in jail rather than prison when they’re sentenced.
“The state bamboozled us,” Budd says. “We’re getting $4 million to share with probation.” The Sheriff’s Office also will receive $150,000 from the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to train staff on doing more with less.
A narrow hallway leads to a mission-control-style command center that overlooks three separate pods for violent offenders, each crammed with 40 to 50 men. A computer screen shows a live feed from security cameras in each pod. For the moment, all is calm.
“We’ve got just one deputy looking over several housing units up here,” Budd says. The jail’s built for 829 beds, but it has over 1,000 inmates today. In fact, it’s been over capacity for 15 years.
“These new guys will be staying for 18 months max,” Budd adds. “Then Manny gets ’em.”
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Chief Probation Officer Manuel Real’s department is bearing the brunt of realignment. Normally upbeat and chipper, with a smile and a hearty handshake at the ready, Real sounds exhausted in the wake of a tumultuous budget season and on the cusp of the Great Uncrowding. “Having the state budget in question for some time was incredibly difficult,” he says. “At one point we were looking at losing 39 positions in probation.”
Fortunately, 23 of those positions were saved by state funding; the 11 left vacant were eliminated. Four pink-slipped officers have been reassigned to juvenile hall.
Everyone’s workload just got a lot heavier.
One of AB 109’s most radical shifts is having probation officers supervise prisoners in the initial months after their release, a responsibility formerly handled by county parole departments. Since the county jail is already over capacity and the law allows for community supervision of lower-level offenders, Real and his staff will be taking on some of the triple-nons. Quite frankly, that scares him, because they’re criminals who have offended multiple times and given law enforcement much grief.
“From our point of view, they’re pretty serious offenders,” Real says. “For us, they’re not low-level at all. They were individuals we saw locally before they went to state prison.” The probation department already told the state “no” on six candidates for supervised release – some of them had violent offenses on their records, and all but one were gang affiliates.
Like it or not, Real and his department are developing strategies for keeping tabs on the triple-nons while also running juvenile hall and other youth programs.
Real’s looking at expanding and enhancing probation’s electronic monitoring program. (Think ankle bracelets that transmit data about the wearer’s location to a computer system.) The department continues to debate shuffling staff around so more are handling initial intake and risk assessment for the newly arrived triple-nons.
Current staff are developing plans to make supervision as intensive as possible, including an officer-to-offender ratio no higher than 50-to-1.
Probation will also lean heavily on treatment and rehabilitation programs, offered by county agencies and community nonprofits, for help in managing this risky new population.
“How can we take what we have presently in the community and leverage that with some of our own services?” Real asks.
A treatment and rehabilitation services subgroup of the Community Corrections Partnership is trying to identify the most effective programs for job training, drug rehab and reducing aggression to help those under community supervision make a smooth transition back into society.
“We’re looking at best practices, not flavor-of-the-month approaches,” Real says.
But even if the first few months go swimmingly, Real acknowledges some offenders will commit crimes again, perhaps within weeks of being released.
“That’s when it goes to the courts,” he says.
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Several deserted cubicles collect dust in the Monterey outpost of the District Attorney’s office, clustered together in the hallway leading to the legal library. A handwritten paper sign on one desk poignantly states the obvious: “Empty.” District Attorney Flippo motions with his head toward them. “Budget cuts.”
Over the past few years, Flippo has gone from having 35 investigators to 25. This year’s budget axe hacked more than $1 million off his bottom line.
Flippo’s not one to mince words, especially when it comes to realignment.
“I don’t agree with the law,” he says. “I don’t think you’ll find any prosecutor who agrees with it.” The reality of the situation conflicts, in his mind, with the most basic notions of crime and punishment.
“We’ll have career criminals walking the streets,” Flippo says.
Given state prisoners’ epic 70 percent recidivism rate and the steady slashing of public safety and social services budgets, it’s not surprising he foresees trouble.
“We don’t want another Polly Klaas,” Flippo says, referring to the 1993 kidnapping and murder of a 12-year-old girl from Petaluma. Klaas’ case led to the conviction of Richard Allen Davis, who’d committed multiple serious crimes before his most infamous crime.
“It may take some seminal event or two to change and refocus this new realignment approach, and get people to ask, ‘Is it really the best way?’”
On a more basic level, Flippo predicts a clogging of the courts with triple-nons who re-offend shortly after being released, meaning an increased caseload for his office and for the county public defender. His office, and the public defender’s office, each get $70,000 from the state to deal with the first nine months of realignment.
But though he sees that as a pitifully low budget to review, investigate and charge people, he’s in the same boat as everyone else.
“We can’t get caught up in a game of numbers and jeopardize public safety,” he says. “I do not want my people losing sight of those who are being victimized.”
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Those returning to community supervision may not be violent themselves, but they’ve been catalysts for crimes like drug dealing that can lead others down a violent path.
It’s already boom time for restraining orders in Monterey County, says YWCA legal advocate Julia Foster, who’s been helping an increasing number of domestic-violence victims seeking protection in recent months.
Her fellow full-time advocate just left; that position won’t be filled, leaving Foster to handle the uptick in clients herself. Foster worries that AB 109 could bring more danger and fear to a community already on the edge.
“Part of the healing process for a victim in the past was that she could feel some sort of safety because the person who assaulted her was in jail,” Foster says. “Now, many [offenders’] jail time is going to be cut back dramatically.” Shortened sentences mean more released offenders will be seeking housing and jobs when funds for social services are drying up. It’s no cakewalk for ex-cons to get jobs even in the best of times, but now they’re re-entering society when the county unemployment rate is 11 percent and formerly middle-class families are applying for food stamps and Section 8 housing.
“We’re about to have an influx of individuals in the same race to find those resources as our clients,” says Karen Hagman, the YWCA’s development director. “There’s a fear that people coming back into the community, without the right resources, will move back into criminal activity.”
Foster works closely with the victims’ assistance department at the DA’s office, where department manager Pam Patterson, a 27-year-veteran of the victims’ unit, has lost four staffers since 2003. Her five remaining advocates assisted over 2,500 new victims last year, providing guidance for everything from obtaining restitution to appearing at hearings. “It’s kind of like you’re preparing for the unknown,” Patterson says. “I’m trying to find out what other counties are doing.”
As part of the Community Corrections Partnership, Patterson has reviewed draft realignment action plans from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Yolo counties.
“I don’t see anything in there for assisting victims of crime,” Patterson says. “If someone’s released from jail on home detention, who’s going to notify the victim of this type of release? We need some type of protocol in place so victims are represented and not forgotten in this process.”
Patterson sees opportunities for change in California’s corrections and prisoner rehabilitation system, but only if there’s money to support reform.
“If you read what the purpose of this is, to release people or to not incarcerate lower-level criminals and provide them with opportunities to change, that’s great – if there are services to help them change,” Patterson says. “The ability to rehabilitate them in prison has been severely cut. As it is, the services available to the normal, everyday person are reducing monthly. If you are a convicted felon, what is there for you?”
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T hey’re coming from Tehachapi, Pelican Bay, Mule Creek and numerous other prisons from across the state. They range in age from 19 to 60; 18 have documented gang affiliations and one has a prior domestic violence conviction. They’ve been convicted of everything from petty theft to felony drug possession to corporal injury to a child.
These are the first 45 individuals (44 men, one woman) who will be shifted to the county’s supervised release program over the next five months.
Once they’re in Monterey County, Real will work with a wide range of social service providers to help manage his new charges, from drug rehab to employment assistance. He says there are programs with low price tags and high success rates that can make realignment safer.
Enter Jacqueline Simon, a veteran criminal justice professional who’s dedicated her life to helping parolees re-enter a world that may have changed during their time behind bars.
“I’m giving them a second chance because I believe they deserve it,” says Simon, whose gentle voice belies an formidable presence. Most post-prison programs last 20 days, but from Simon’s perspective – backed by 30 years of experience – three weeks isn’t enough to prepare parolees for considerable free time.
She’s developed a multifaceted approach to assisting parolees through work as a teacher with the state’s Substance Abuse and Treatment Recovery (STAR) program and her own Transitions for Recovery and Re-entry Program, which she founded in 2008.
Transitions meets every weekday for six hours and uses everything from group therapy to vocational training. Participants can complete the program in 90 days, but can re-enroll any time in the following year.
State Assemblyman Bill Monning (D-Carmel) emphasized the connection between Simon’s work and the implementation of AB 109 in a July 27 letter of support to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, to which Simon is applying for grant funding.
“The need for re-entry services for parolees is overwhelming, and the parolee system is in desperate need of financial support,” Monning wrote. “Transitions has reduced the recidivism rate within Monterey County, and promotes healthy relationships with the help of community partners, providers and stakeholders.”
Simon says she’s simply giving her students choices: “Most other programs are sanctioned. People choose to be here, because they’re ready to change.”
The results are impressive. The Transitions program has a 92 percent graduation rate. Graduates come back to mentor current students and share their stories.
Simon credits the program’s success for its escape from the budget axe that’s cut other social services. Another reason Transition’s funding has been spared: Gang violence is a chronic issue, particularly in Salinas. Monterey County recorded the highest youth murder rate in the state in 2009.
Simon’s seeking more federal funding to launch a pilot program focused on re-entry strategies for recently released fathers. The climate is competitive, but she’s got cost-effectiveness on her side ($900 per month per student, in contrast to $4,160 per month for state prisoners) and a groundswell of community support. Congressman Sam Farr (D-Carmel), Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue and numerous parole agents have written letters of support.
The grant, if awarded by HHS, won’t come through until November. Until then, Simon will soldier on with what she has.
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Back in the situation room, county leaders are assessing their Great Uncrowding plan. The Legislature’s work is done; the Community Corrections Partnership, meanwhile, is polishing and repolishing the county’s strategy for dealing with the influx of former state prisoners. Real says the CCP’s executive committee was to vote on a final draft plan on Sept. 22. From there, it goes to the county Board of Supervisors for approval on Oct. 4 – three days after the state starts sending parolees to the county.
“One of the real fortunate things for us in Monterey County is that we have a culture of collaboration,” Real says. “Everyone’s committed to pulling together to accomplish these things.”
But that commitment will face its greatest test yet in nine days and counting, when the uncrowding effort begins.
“If you give these guys $200 and a bus ticket, and nothing else, your level of success isn’t going to be too good,” Real says. “We’re going into this whole new way of doing business underfunded.”