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Sun March 23, 2014

Freeing Up California's Prisons: A Massive Undertaking

Originally published on Tue March 25, 2014 12:18 pm

It's been said you can judge the quality of a civilization by the way it treats its prisoners. If that's true, California in 2011 was in poor condition, at least according to the Supreme Court.

The justices found that overcrowding was so bad — 150 percent to 180 percent capacity — it was deemed cruel and unusual punishment and in violation of the Constitution. They swiftly ordered the state to cut its prison population by 33,000 over the next two years (a three-judge panel extended that deadline last month).

California is calling its dramatic prison-reduction plan "realignment," and it is part of a nationwide trend to rework the U.S. prison system.

Stopping The Revolving Door

California's prison realignment process is shifting responsibility for offenders and their rehabilitation to local communities.

A prisoner released from a state prison after serving time for a nonviolent, nonsexual and low-level offense goes under the supervision of county probation.

"The concept of realignment was that if you emptied the prisons, you'd have more state resources [and] that the state could do more in its own prisons," says Paige St. John, who covers prisons for the Los Angeles Times.

Now, offenders who violate the terms of their release don't go back to state prison. Instead, they're left in the hands of local probation officers and local jails.

"The biggest reduction in the prison population was supposed to come from stopping this revolving door of parole violators returning to prison," St. John tells NPR's Arun Rath.

It's had some unintended consequences. Previously, local probation officers were dealing with minor, low-level offenders. St. John says that now they're seeing some "dramatic blurring" of responsibilities.

"Some counties have morphed their probation departments into mini-parole agencies," she says, "arming people with guns, using electronic monitoring and other techniques much more often in tracking people much more intensively."

Linda Penner, the executive officer of California's Board of State and Community Corrections, says this kind of shift is an enormous undertaking. She's part of the team that orchestrated realignment, and a former chief of probation herself. She says this approach works because these populations are well-known to the local authorities now responsible for them.

"I think the locals are able and ready," Penner says. "These offenders came from these counties, and so it is not an unknown population to the agencies that are servicing them locally."

Meanwhile, local communities are in charge of their own approach to crime. St. John says it allows counties to remain in their "comfort zone."

"If they are tough on crime, they can remain tough on crime — they'll just have to foot the bill for it. If they are very liberal in their approach and want to put their money into rehabilitation instead, then they're free to do that too," she says.

But since local ways of doing things can vary, this means some inconsistency in how the law is enforced across the state. Something that might get 24 hours in jail in one community, for instance, might lead to 60 days in another.

Getting Involved

Regardless of the sentences, after serving time, ex-offenders are likely to need support reintegrating into their communities.

"What I think is most important is that we have the services, regardless of who's providing them," says Margarita Perez, the deputy probation officer for Los Angeles County.

In Whittier, Calif., officer Beatrice Llamas has been with the Department of Probation for 25 years. She now works in a specific program dedicated to reintegrating the state's realignment offenders.

On a recent day, she visited one of her parolees, Eric (he asked NPR not use his last name). Llamas talked with Eric, a heavy-set guy with a boyish face, and asked him basic questions about how he is doing.

In the couple of months she's been working with him, she's learned all about his life. Eric's girlfriend is expecting their first child, and that's been a powerful motive for him to make changes in his behavior.

"So that baby on the way makes a difference for him," Llamas says. "In someone else's case it may be something else; it may be a job that they barely obtained that they want to keep ... it may be school they just started. It works to all our benefits to talk to them and see what's going on with them."

There's a tendency to define this kind of work as law enforcement, and there are good reasons Llamas wears a bulletproof vest and carries pepper spray. But her day-to-day duties look a lot more like social work — getting involved with her cases to help them with finding jobs, housing and leading a clean life.

But being so involved in the lives of individual offenders is also very time-consuming, and in big counties like Los Angeles, it also means a lot of taxed resources.

If Eric were to get into trouble again, he would be referred to a county jail, where a local sheriff would decide whether he stays in jail or is released. Jails have to become more like prisons now, says St. John of the Times. She says jails have people now for decades instead of six months.

"It's resulted in a kind of sentencing reform the state didn't intend, where punishment may be meted out by a judge, but in the end is actually delivered by the sheriff, who determines whether he has room in his jail or not," she says.

Even so, there's still not enough space to hold all the offenders in local jails. Los Angeles County now lets out people who have served only part of their sentence. And even with shifting some responsibility to local communities, the state is once again having problems with the population.

"Ironically, the prison population is growing again," St. John says. "The reduction of about 35,000 inmates turned out to be temporary. About a two-year reprieve is about what it bought California and not much more."

Investing In Alternatives

Part of the problem is that California is still playing catch-up after years in which rates of incarceration skyrocketed.

Across the country, the percentage of Americans who are locked up increased dramatically over the second half of the 20th century. It peaked in 2008, when 1 in 100 adult Americans was actually behind bars.

Adam Gelb, the director of the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts, says there are two factors that determine the size and cost of a prison system: how many people go in and how long they stay. Through the 1970s and '80s in particular, he says, laws were passed, enacted and enforced that sent more people to prison for offenses that previously would not have sent them to prison.

"What states are saying across the board now is that there are much more effective and less expensive ways to deal with these lower-level offenders," Gelb says.

In Texas, for instance, Gelb says the state invested into expanding treatment programs, probation programs, drug courts and other alternatives for lower-level, nonviolent offenders.

"Policymakers in the states are seeing research about risk assessment, about new technologies like GPS monitoring and drug courts and other strategies that can reduce recidivism and do it at a fraction of the cost of a prison cell," Gelb says.

Whether it's California or Texas, a consensus appears to be forming that an integrated approach — with more active rehabilitation programs and community involvement — is the right way forward in dealing with the United States' huge prisoner population.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

It's been said you can judge the quality of a civilization by the way they treat their prisoners. If that's true, California in 2011 was in poor condition, at least according to the Supreme Court. They found that overcrowding in California prisons was so bad, it constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Constitution.

Paige St. John covers California prisons for the L.A. Times.

PAIGE ST. JOHN: Two inmates in a cell built for one, cases where inmates were housed in the recreation rooms and basketball courts. They were triple bunked. In some cases, mattresses on the floor in single cells.

RATH: The Supreme Court found that California prisons were at 150 to 180 percent capacity. They swiftly ordered the state to cut its prison population by 33,000 prisoners. California is calling their dramatic prison reduction plan realignment. It's part of a nationwide trend to rework our prison system. And that's our cover story today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: California's prison realignment process is attacking the problem on two fronts: shifting responsibility for offenders to local communities and leaving those communities in charge of rehabilitating them. What this means is if a prisoner is released from a state prison, they are then handed over to local authorities. In California's case, that means county probation.

Again, Paige St. John of the L.A. Times.

JOHN: The concept of realignment was that if you emptied the prisons, you'd have more state resources that the state could do more in its own prisons.

RATH: Now, offenders who violate the terms of their release don't go back to state prison. Instead, they're left in the hands of local probation officers and local jails.

JOHN: Yeah, the biggest reduction in the prison population was supposed to come from stopping this revolving door of parole violators returning to prison.

RATH: But it's had some unintended consequences. Previously, local probation officers were dealing with minor low-level offenders. Again, Paige St. John.

JOHN: Since then, we've seen a dramatic blurring. Some counties have morphed their probation departments into like mini parole agencies, arming people with guns, using electronic monitoring and other techniques much more often in tracking people much more intensively.

LINDA PENNER: It is obviously an enormous undertaking, historic in nature, frankly, this kind of a shift in California.

RATH: Linda Penner is the executive officer of California's Board of State and Community Corrections. She's part of the team that orchestrated realignment and a former chief of probation herself. She says this approach works because these populations are well-known to the local authorities now responsible for them.

PENNER: Remember, these offenders came from these counties.

RATH: In spite of all the added responsibility, it leaves local communities in charge of their own approach to crime.

JOHN: It allows counties to remain in their comfort zone. And if they are tough on crime, they can remain tough on crime. They'll just have to foot the bill for it. If they are very liberal in their approach and want to put their money into rehabilitation instead, then they're free to do that too. It's called the eat-your-own-cooking in this sense.

RATH: But since local cuisines can vary, this means some inconsistency to how the law is enforced across the state. Something that might get 24 hours in jail in one community might lead to 60 days in another.

Margarita Perez is the deputy probation officer for L.A. County. She says that in terms of an approach to crime and rehabilitation, it just makes sense.

MARGARITA PEREZ: At the end of the day, these individuals are all coming back into our communities. You know, John Smith is coming out of state prison. He's going to L.A. County regardless of whether he's supervised by deputy probation officer Smith or parole agent Smith. What's most important is that we have the services to assist these individuals to reintegrate.

RATH: This means local communities have to take a hands-on approach to reintegrating those offenders. To get a sense of what the means on the ground, I rode along with a probation officer in Los Angeles County, Whittier, California, to be exact.

Beatrice Llamas has been with the Department of Probation for 25 years. She now works in a specific program dedicated to reintegrating the state's realignment offenders.

BEATRICE LLAMAS: I want you to just go ahead and get in the car. Now, there's a cage in there. Is that OK with you guys?

RATH: Beatrice and I get in a car and head out. The first two stops give a sense of the diversity of the cases Beatrice handles. The first, Robert Hughes, basically lives on the street. He's clearly living just day to day. He seems happy to see Beatrice.

Our next stop takes us to the most beautiful, idyllic suburban neighborhood you can imagine, a luxurious house overlooking the hills. That's where one of her cases lives with his parents. Our third stop falls somewhere in between the first two. It looks like a fine neighborhood to me, but Beatrice points out the gang graffiti and other signs of trouble. We approach one house that's noticeably more rundown than the others.

LLAMAS: You know, I don't know if you noticed the surroundings. There's a bullet hole in the door, got a window crushed in and signs of activity there.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

LLAMAS: Hey, it's Llamas. Can you come - out to the door?

ERIC: Yeah.

RATH: Eric, he asked that we only use his first name, comes to the door. Eric's a heavyset guy with a boyish face. Beatrice talks to him for a few minutes, basic questions about how he's doing.

LLAMAS: So how's everything?

ERIC: All right.

LLAMAS: Yeah?

ERIC: Yeah.

LLAMAS: Oh, OK. You still go to the doctor's appointments, the...

ERIC: Yeah.

RATH: If Beatrice sounds more like a mom than a cop, that's exactly what's going on here. In the couple of months she's been working with him, she's learned a lot about Eric's life. Eric's girlfriend is expecting their first child. That's been a powerful motivator for him to make changes in his behavior.

LLAMAS: That baby on the way makes a difference for him in his case. In someone else's case, it may be something else. It may be a job that they barely obtained, and they want to keep that. It may be school that they just started. It just - it works to all our benefits to talk to them and see what is going on with them.

RATH: But being so involved in the lives of individual offenders is also time-consuming. And in big counties like L.A., it also means a lot of strained resources. If Eric were to get into trouble again, he would be referred to a county jail, where a local sheriff would decide whether he stays in jail or is released. Again, Paige St. John of the L.A. Times.

JOHN: Jails have to become more like prisons now. Jails have people now for decades instead of six months. It's resulted in a kind of sentencing reform the state didn't intend where punishment may be meted out by a judge but in the end is actually delivered by the sheriff who determines whether he has room in his jail or not.

RATH: Even so, there's still not enough space to hold all the offenders in local jails. Los Angeles County now lets out people who have served only part of their sentence. And even with the shift to local communities, the state is once again having problems with the population.

JOHN: Well, ironically, the prison population is growing again. The reduction of about 35,000 inmates turned out to be temporary. About a two-year reprieve is what it bought California and not much more.

RATH: Part of the problem is that California is still playing catch-up after years in which rates of incarceration skyrocketed. Which brings up an important distinction between two different but deeply-related problems, prison overcrowding, exactly what it sounds like, and rates of incarceration, the percentage of Americans who are locked up.

Across the country, rates of incarceration increased dramatically over the second half of the 20th century. It peaked in 2008, when one in 100 Americans were actually behind bars. I asked Adam Gelb of the Pew Trusts how we got there.

ADAM GELB: There are two factors and two factors only that determine the size and cost of a prison system. The first is how many people go in and the second is how long they stay. And what happened through the '70s and '80s in particular, and much of it in reaction to explosion of drug use, was that legislatures passed and governors enacted and judges enforced and parole boards as well all had a piece in taking more and more people and sending them to prison for offenses that they weren't going to prison for prior to that period and then also increasing the length of stay.

And what states are saying across the board now is that there are much more effective and less expensive ways to deal with a lot of these lower-level offenders.

RATH: At the same time, the high rates of incarceration in America have also corresponded with a historic drop in crime. And in particular, violent crime has gone down. Couldn't that drop in crime be due to all the incarceration?

GELB: There's no question that increased incarceration helped bring down the crime rate during the 1990s. No question about it. The research is unequivocal about that. But what it shows is that about 30 percent - maybe 33, 35 percent at most - of the crime drop was due to increased imprisonment. The rest of it, the remaining 70, 75 percent, was due to other factors outside the prison system. And what the research says is that in a lot of these states, we've hit a point of diminishing returns.

RATH: You mentioned other states that have been reducing their prison populations. What are some of these states doing differently from California to do that?

GELB: In Texas the prison population had grown from 50,000 inmates in 1987 to 150,000 inmates 20 years later. And Texas leaders said, you know, we're not just going to continue to build prisons. There's got to be a better way. And so instead of giving the green light to the Department of Corrections there to continue to build, instead, we're going to put a fraction of that, about a tenth of that into expanding treatment programs and probation programs and drug courts and other alternatives for lower-level, non-violent offenders.

Policymakers in the states are seeing research about risk assessment, about new technologies, like GPS monitoring and drug courts and other strategies, that can reduce recidivism and do it at a fraction of the cost of a prison cell.

RATH: After my day with Deputy Probation Officer Beatrice Llamas, that human approach seemed to be working. All three of the men we visited are nearing the end of their probation, and she appears genuinely invested in making sure each meet those goals. Reflecting on Eric and his baby, she says...

LLAMAS: You know who's out here, so we're going to do the best we could to work with him and keep him, meaning free from violating any laws.

RATH: There's a tendency to define this kind of work as law enforcement. And there are good reasons Beatrice wears a bulletproof vest and carries pepper spray. But her day-to-day duties look a lot more like social work, getting involved with her cases to help them finding jobs, housing and leading a clean life. Whether it's California or Texas, a consensus appears to be forming that an integrated approach with more active rehabilitation programs and community involvement is the right way forward in dealing with America's huge prisoner population.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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