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California shuffle: prisoners to come home to roost


Back in January 2010, a three-judge panel composed of a federal appeals judge for the 9th Circuit and two federal district judges, ordered the state to reduce its prison population in six-month benchmarks from 179 percent of design capacity to 137.5 percent within two years. The state filed an appeal of the decision to the United States Supreme Court and lost.

In May, the U.S. the Supreme Court upheld the three-judge panel’s finding that California prison overcrowding is unconstitutional and leads to severe violations of inmates’ basic rights.

In order to comply with the panel’s order, the state Legislature passed a series of enabling bills, and then last month submitted a report updating the court about the prison population reduction measures undertaken.

The passed bills include Assembly Bill 109, approved by the Legislature on April 4 and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown. It is a major component of the state’s plan to comply with the court’s order.

This law will require tens of thousands of adult felons to serve their sentences under local control rather than in state prison.

According to the state department of corrections, low-level, nonviolent, and non-sexual offenders as defined by the California penal code convicted after Oct. 1 of this year will serve sentences in county jail instead of going to state prison.

And, contrary to what has been reported and rumored, the state does not currently expect to release any inmates early to comply with the court order.

The legislation also contains funding to underwrite the cost of this shifting of responsibility.
Under AB 109, new re-entry facilities funded by the state, as well as new mental health facilities will be constructed at the California Medical Facility and the California Institution for Women.

Additionally, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), AB 109 requires California to reduce inmate overcrowding within its 33 adult institutions to 137.5 percent of design capacity within two years. The design capacity rate is the number of inmates a prison can house based on one inmate per cell. The state’s system was designed to accommodate a total of 79,858 inmates. However, all 33 adult facilities today operate at approximately 179 percent of design capacity.

CDCR has set a timetable to decrease the inmate population to no more than 167 percent by Dec. 27, 2011; 155 percent by June 27, 2012; 147 percent by Dec. 27, 2012 and 137.5 percent by May 24, 2013.

Fourteen days following each deadline, the state must file a report advising the court whether the estimated population reduction has been achieved, and if not, must provide reasons for the deficiency and discuss measures taken to meet the required reduction.

Under AB 109, counties will incarcerate, provide community supervision, and rehabilitate lower-level adult offenders, including non-serious, nonviolent offenders who have not been convicted of a registrable sex crime. According to CDCR, individuals who are returned to custody for violating their conditions of parole will “serve a custody term in county jail.”

According to Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for CDCR, on the state level key findings show that 75 percent of felons who recidivate return to prison within a year of release.

Re-released felons recidivate at a rate 16.8 percentage points higher than those released for the first time.

Slightly more than a quarter of all inmates are paroled to Los Angeles County after release, and of these parolees, however, 59.1 percent recidivated within three years, which is lower than the statewide average of 67.5 percent for first time release and re-released prisoners.

Upon release, ex-felons often face challenges finding housing, employment, maintaining mental stability and reunification with families. When these issues go unresolved, individuals sometimes end up back in custody.

To help individuals avoid becoming a recidivism statistic, re-entry programs have been created by the state and nonprofit organizations, and they are beneficial in helping provide resources and stability to inmates. Because each community has different needs for their re-entry facilities, these programs were developed to specifically address the needs of those communities.

There are two different types of re-entry programs, those operated by the state or other government entities and those run by private community-based organizations.

Community-based organizations strive to enhance public safety, providing services needed to prevent inmates from being re-incarcerated. These are programs built to help formerly incarcerated inmates properly re-enter society, develop parole plans, and develop social skills to help change their lives. Re-entry programs are comprehensive, multifaceted programs aimed at meeting all of the most vital needs of prisoners facing parole.

Private programs are often volunteer-based and not funded by the government. “Getting Out by Going In (GOGI)” is a local organization staffed entirely by community and formerly incarcerated volunteers who are dedicated to helping released inmates and youth make better choices. GOGI has the ability to correct inmate perception and behavior through providing an alternative culture of positive social skills.

“We are a gang for the good, one big family,” says Coach Mara Leigh Taylor. GOGI offer essentials tools and resources to formerly incarcerated inmates such as community service, counseling, job search, and networking. Through networking, formerly incarcerated volunteers write letters to incarcerated inmates encouraging them to seek help. “We give them tools they need to make good decisions,” says Taylor.

Using initiatives such as GOGI books and correspondence courses, which are sent to inmates in jails and prisons, the nonprofit offers peer coaching intended to enable inmates to prove themselves over time to dedicate their lives to benefiting their community.

GOGI classes and workshops, facilitated by staff, volunteers or assigned inmates, review and support the learning through GOGI tools. Through writing assignments and the earning of completion certificates, participants learn what they need to do to change. Supervised by former GOGI girl coach Maria Castro the GOGI hot line is a link released individuals and current inmates use when they need help. “Any inmate who writes to us saying I’m ready to change my life, I need help, we will never turn them away,” said Taylor.

A New Way of Life Re-entry Project is a nonprofit organization in South Central Los Angeles with a core mission to help women and girls break the cycle of entrapment within the criminal justice system and lead healthy and satisfying lives. With more than 13 years of service, A New Way of Life Project has helped 600 women come back to society, and has reunited more than 150 women with their children.

The organization provides housing and advocates for the human and civil rights of those in prison and people with past convictions. It also helps build leadership capacity within formerly incarcerated women. “It’s a successful transition from prison to the community,” says Susan Burton founder of A New Way of Life Re-entry Project.

Additionally, the organization offers legal services for both men and women that assist them with obtaining vocational and special licenses and clearing their records.

“Our community has been so hard-hit with over-incarceration that there has to be more services and advocacy to transform the impact that incarceration has had on our community,” says Burton.

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration created a plan that could provide some of the help needed. Designed to improve public safety by reducing recidivism, the centerpiece of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s comprehensive prison reform package was the creation of secure re-entry facilities in the local communities where inmates will return upon release.

This plan was created under Assembly Bill 900 in May 2007, and the former governor appropriated $1.2 billion in jail construction funding through state lease-revenue bonds. This money will provide for 16,000 new beds in local re-entry facilities, each of which will house up to 500 inmates during their last 12 months in custody. These facilities will provide intensive rehabilitation, and offer offender job training, mental health and substance abuse counseling, housing placement, educational assistance, and other services in the critical few months just prior to their release.

“Ninety percent of prisoners who are incarcerated will return back into our society, and most of them return with increased criminal skills,” says GOGI’s Taylor. Considering the high percentage of prisoners released back into societys re-entry programs serve as a force to educate, encourage, and offer resources to help them remain strong when they feel weak. Re-entry facilities make it a priority to reach out to every inmate inquiring of help, even if the program has met capacity.