Revolving Doors: The Crisis in California’s Parole System

prison barsEach year, nearly 2,000 men and women walk out of California’s overcrowded prisons and back into the North County communities where they lived.

Most have no job and no place to live. Many are struggling with drug or alcohol addiction.

Few will succeed in rebuilding their lives, authorities say. A majority of parolees will return to prison within months of their release, some after committing crimes in their neighborhoods, others for violating parole.

This is California’s parole system, an overworked, underfunded system that is ill-equipped to deal with a crushing caseload of former prisoners who leave prison with a meager $200 allowance to feed, clothe and house themselves.

It’s a caseload that stands to get much worse if a panel of federal judges conducting a trial in San Francisco to address overcrowding orders the early release of nearly 40,000 men and women now behind bars to ease prison overcrowding.

“California’s parole population is now so large and its parole agents so overburdened that parolees who represent a serious public safety threat are not watched closely and those who wish to go straight cannot get the help they need,” said a federally funded report released last month by three experts on the criminal justice system.

Legislators, corrections officials, academics and community leaders acknowledge the seemingly insurmountable challenges in changing a parole system that too often fails those who need the help and those charged with giving it.

“If we don’t help them make it, they are going to go back to what they know,” warned Jerome Marsh, chief deputy regional administrator for the Southern California parole region.

Parole caseload

California is one of only a handful of states that requires parole for everyone released from prison.

All parolees are on supervised release. They are subject to search at any time; they may not carry any weapons and they must regularly report their address, job status and any plans to leave the county or state.

When parolees are released, they must return to the county that sent them to prison. For many, that puts them back in the same neighborhood where trouble, and drugs, seduced them in the first place.

For most, the temptations are too great. Seven out of every 10 parolees are back in prison —- recidivists —- within months of their release, most for minor parole violations such as a positive drug test.

The stress of living on the outside after 12 years “in a box” took a toll on Ricardo Guzman. The Vista resident said he recently turned to his old heroin habit —- “jumped back into the spoon” —- after becoming frustrated with life on the outside.

“I’ve been gone so long,” Guzman said. “It’s such an uncomfortable feeling. And there is no one to talk to about it, because no one in my family has ever done time. They don’t understand what I am going through. I don’t know how to live out here. I don’t know how to deal with the problems and the stress.”

After calling his parole agent, admitting his own drug use and asking for help, Guzman waited for a bed to open at a local rehab.

“I’m not stupid,” he said. “I just don’t have the tools for this particular part of my life right now.”

Rehabilitation got lost

In an ideal world, Guzman would have acquired those tools before he got out of prison.

But California’s prisons provide little training.

Rehabilitation in the bulging prisons has long been only an afterthought.

In the last three decades, with a philosophic shift toward taking a harder line on crime, the state changed its sentencing laws. In the past, most prisoners had to go before a parole board to lobby for early release. These days, when an inmate’s time is up, the prison gates open and they walk out.

The new laws did not force prisoners to prove, as they had in the past, that they had a place to go and prospects for reintegrating into their communities.

Somewhere, rehabilitation got lost.

It is a problem inmates and panels who have looked at the state’s system say is massive and unyielding.

Half of all inmates sit on their bunks instead of getting job training, according to the state. When their time is up —- most serve a sentence of about two years —- they are automatically released. Most will spend the next three years on parole.

And most will get the bare minimum of monitoring required by the state: two 15-minute meetings a month with their parole agent, and for many, drug testing.

Odds are low they will successfully reintegrate into their community.

But odds are good they will go back to what they know, be it snorting methamphetamine, kiting checks or congregating with gang members. Odds are good they will carry a knife or hide from their parole agent —- and eventually land back in prison.

Anita Paredes, who runs Community Connection Resource Center in San Diego, said a lack of jobs —- and job skills —- is a big obstacle for many parolees. Until recently, there were no vocational programs at R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa, and that has only changed in recent months.

“The system is so massive and so broken,” Paredes said. “It takes a long time to get any change. It’s a very complicated situation.”

‘Making a better criminal’

Most of those whose parole is revoked wind up back in prison for an average of four months before being re-released. The result is that parolees such as Guzman end up serving what the rehabilitation report called a “life sentence on the installment plan.”

Benny Benavidez, who oversees parole services for San Diego and Imperial counties, refers to the revolving doors of the prison system as “churn.”

“Too often, we are churning the same individual back and forth, back and forth,” he said during a recent interview. “And in some ways, we are making him a better criminal instead of a better citizen.”

With three decades of experience in corrections, Benavidez says prison and parole have become a “societal dumping ground” for those with substance abuse and mental health problems.

“A lot of that is a nuisance to the general public and law enforcement, so they get pushed through the system,” he said. “You can lock them away and they’re out of sight and out of mind, but eventually 97 percent of these guys will get out and what have we done with them?”

A few years ago, the state added “rehabilitation” to the title of the corrections department, and Benavidez said his parole agents have embraced the philosophy.

“I see a big focus now trying to make better use of every single resource we have out there,” he said. “But there is no magic pill, and that’s the frustrating thing about it.”

Under the reforms, Benavidez said, parole agents are becoming “super brokers” in identifying a parolee’s needs, the risk they pose and referring them to the appropriate job or drug program.

“But it’s a tremendous workload,” he said.

Parole agents, sworn peace officers who carry guns, are responsible for an average of 70 parolees, nearly double the national average.

Heart-to-heart talks

Police officers such as Oceanside’s Lt. Joe Young say maintaining close working relationships with overburdened parole agents is crucial to keeping tabs on felons.

“The key is having a strong relationship with parolees and talking with them on a constant basis,” he said. “From my perspective, and even though their agents are stretched to the limits, what we’ve been able to do has worked very well.”

When parolees, particularly high-level gang members, near release, the state notifies the police.

“We then go into the neighborhood where they have strong ties to see if they still have the ability to call the shots and influence the foot soldiers,” Young said. “Our goal is to take away whatever those resources might be.”

Often, Young or members of his nine-member special enforcement unit will have heart-to-heart talks with paroled gang members to try and steer them away from repeating the criminal lifestyle that landed them in prison.

“We try and make them realize what they have on the outside,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s not very often successful, but you can’t ignore it as an option.”

Forcing change

Options are what the state needs more of to break the cycle of prison, parole and back to prison, state officials and correctional experts agree. Options that embrace rehabilitation and everything that comes with that: transitional housing, better job programs and rehabilitation facilities for all who want them.

“For too long, parole has been little more than surveil, nail and jail,” said Barry Krisberg, president of the Oakland-based National Council on Crime and Delinquency. “What we need is a genuine focus on re-entry into the community because just cracking down on parolees is a failure that’s reflected in the recidivism rates.”

In 2006, 40,000 people landed in prison for a new crime, while nearly 80,000 were sent to prison for violating parole, said state Sen. George Runner, a representative of Antelope Valley.

“California is the only state that sends more people to prison from parole than court,” said Runner, the point person for Republican state senators who have intervened in the federal case over the fate of California prisons.

Runner said that even though longer sentences are politically popular, they are not always the answer. Instead, efforts should be placed on increasing the odds of an inmate’s successful return back into society.

Krisberg agreed and said recent parole reforms that established sanctions for violations that don’t mandate a return to prison is one small step in the right direction.

“But fundamentally, we’ll never get substantial results by depending on state employees,” he said. “The money needs to go down to those in the local community willing to deliver the services that make a difference, such as transitional housing and employment. We have to get out of the failure model.”

Krisberg said two measures on the Nov. 4 ballot would have distributed millions to local cities to reduce caseloads for parole officers, mandate 90 days of rehabilitation for every prisoner before release and create county-operated programs for nonviolent youth offenders.

Voters rejected both propositions.

A trial began last week in San Francisco to determine what should be done to relieve overcrowding in the state’s prisons, believed to be a root cause of what the judges said is constitutionally inadequate health care.

What a panel of federal judges does following the trial is likely to reshape the debate about parole —- and the prison system in general.

The judges have indicated they may order the early release of as many as 40,000 prisoners, a move that could send an additional 3,120 parolees to San Diego County, according to an estimate produced by the state Republican Assembly Caucus.

If they do, parolees such as Guzman, a heroin addict, are likely to find it even harder to get the help they need when they fall off the wagon.

“I want to be free, like most people,” he said. “We don’t want to go back to prison. We just don’t know how to live out here.”

From the North County Times, San Diego, CA, Saturday November 22, 2008