Last year, a panel of federal judges ordered the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDRC) to reduce overcrowding in state prisons. The state has about 170,000 inmates, which is almost double its capacity. So, California had a few options: build more prisons, transfer inmates out of state, or contract with private prisons.
But in the midst of a massive budget crisis, the state decided to do something many didn’t expect, something that prison reform advocates have been wanting for years.
California decided to implement changes that actually reduce the number of people in prison. You may have heard this program referred to as “early release,” but CDCR spokesman Gordon Hinkle says that’s not quite right:
GORDON HINKLE: That is something that’s kind of a misnomer out there. There’s no blanket release of prisoners or even an actual headcount of prisoners who are being released early whatsoever.
Instead of releasing inmates, CDCR is cutting back on the number coming in. But are they doing it the best way? KALW’s Rina Palta reports.
RINA PALTA: Every morning around 8 o’clock, a van pulls up to the San Rafael Bus Depot with a delivery: ex-prisoners, fresh from San Quentin State Prison. This particular morning, the van is jam-packed. There’s even an inmate in the trunk.
Everyone lines up in front of the van to receive $200.
Chad Stevens is getting out after 8 1/2 months and says he’s thrilled.
STEVENS: Absolutely. Wouldn’t you be?
Stevens is headed home to San Francisco.
STEVENS: And I have a job lined up. Basically stay out of trouble.
But his first task is to check in with parole within 24 hours. Parole officers help released inmates transition back into normal life. The officer also checks to make sure the parolee doesn’t fall into bad behavior like drug use or hang out with the wrong people.
STEVENS: Basically, to me a parole officer is like a baby-sitter. You do what they tell you to do and you’re ok. Otherwise, you’re headed back to prison.
That’s the problem with California’s parole system: 66% of parolees return to prison within three years of getting out. Over half of them don’t go back to prison for new crimes, but on technical parole violations that range from failing to report for a parole appointment, to going into a neighborhood they’re not supposed to be in.
As flawed as the parole system is, almost every person coming out of prison has had to deal with it. Until now.
GORDON HINKLE: The hard thing is going back and determining who’s eligible.
That’s CDCR Spokesman Gordon Hinkle. In response to prison overcrowding, Governor Schwarzenegger created what’s called a “non-revocable parolee.” These parolees don’t have to check in with an officer, and won’t be sent back to prison on technical violations. But Hinkle explains that not every inmate is a candidate.
GORDON HINKLE: They can’t be a sex offender, they can’t be a serious or violent predator, they can’t be a gang member.
Hinkle says the state expects that 20-30% of felons leaving prison will be put on non-revocable, unsupervised parole.
HINKLE: Then we do expect to see the populations in our prisons, the overcrowding, go down. That number that we’ve projected is about 6,500 individuals in the first year.
But not everyone’s so sure that taking newly released inmates off of parole supervision will keep them out of prison.
Seventh Step is a halfway house in Hayward. On a sunny day, Brian Condan is watching daytime television. Condan says there’s one major reason he’s at Seventh Step.
BRIAN CONDAN: No place to live, and no address to give to my parole agent. So they sent me here.
Condan served 8 months in San Quentin for 2nd degree burglary in 2006 and has been on parole ever since. He just got out of Santa Rita jail after getting caught on a parole violation.
CONDAN: Absconding. It was because I would get out and start using drugs. I didn’t feel like doing my parole. Didn’t feel like getting help yet.
Everyone here is a parolee, brought here by their parole agent. As is everyone on the waitlist, 30 people long. Like many community-based programs, Seventh Step gets money from the state to treat parolees, but that doesn’t include this new group of non-revocable parolees.
MICHAEL SMITH: Just to let someone out in society and say, oh, you’re off parole, with nothing is just, that’s bad.
Michael Smith got out of prison a year ago. Smith completed the Seventh Step program in September and now works here, answering phones and filling out paperwork. A drug dealer with no disciplinary problems and no history of violence, he probably would have qualified for non-revocable parole if he were let out now. But he’s glad he didn’t.
SMITH: You’ve got years and years of stuff to deal with. So I’m all for letting people off of parole early, but without treatment or resources for them to get housing or the counseling they need for their drug problems, or employment, then I don’t think it’s a good idea.
CDCR spokespeople say that many of the inmates let out on non-revocable parole will have received rehabilitation and vocational training while in prison. But those working inside the state prisons tell a different story.
ALLYSON WEST: There have always been waiting lists. There have always been more prisoners who need programs and want programs than are available to them.
Allyson West has run a non-profit program in San Quentin for ten years. She says that after the state cut $250 million from rehabilitation programs, the waiting lists for programs have gotten longer and the chances that offenders will get help is minimal.
WEST: And then the vocational programs — San Quentin had sheet metal, machine shop, janitorial, sign painting, print shop. There were at least six or seven of them. And we’re down to two. So there were waitlists to get into those programs and now most of them are gone. So even real life job training that they would have has is taken away from them. Not to mention the opportunity to earn the weeks off in credit.
West is talking about another new prison initiative. Inmates can now earn weeks off from their sentences if they complete certain programs or work in prison factories. This is in addition to parole reforms. This is what most know as the ‘early release program.’ Even though CDCR doesn’t expect many early releases to come of it—less than a thousand over the next two years–it’s gotten a lot of media attention. That worries Allyson West.
WEST: When they see crime rates go up and they see an increase in incarceration rates, they’re going to blame early release, without looking at the great loss in programs which were insufficient to begin with, grossly insufficient.
That said, West expects the parole reforms to bring the prison population down slowly over the next couple of years. But what will happen in the long run? At the moment, CDCR seems serious about cutting down the number of people entering prison. But cutting rehabilitation services and reforming parole were both born out of the financial crisis. What happens when the money comes back?
WEST: Which way is the rehabilitation and punishment pendulum going to be swinging at that point? And what are you going to do with a name, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in the intervening time now that you’ve cut all these programs?
West says that there are senior managers in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation who desperately want to keep the ‘R’ in CDCR’s name. They also know that without rehabilitation, even parole reform won’t necessarily keep these inmates from ending up back behind bars.