Starting over: Prisoners face uncertain future after release under state’s realignment law


From The New Times SLO

The letter was written on a single sheet of ruled notebook paper. Neatly folded and just four paragraphs long. The words, penned in a looping cursive, were hopeful but pleading.

“I am in need of a stable, clean and sober living environment,” it stated. “I am totally committed to living life in a productive manner.”

The letter was from Dennis, a 56-year-old inmate currently incarcerated in the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi. He said that he’s written similar letters to numerous sober living residences in SLO and Santa Barbara counties, but has received little to no response from any of them.

“I am having a difficult time securing a place to live, much less obtaining any financial assistance,” Dennis wrote in a letter to New Times. “Frankly, I am very concerned and worried about my immediate condition upon my release.”

Dennis has been in custody serving time for a nonviolent felony conviction since August 2016. But on Nov. 24, 2018, he will become one of more than 40,000 individuals released from state prison each year and into the care of county probation officials under the auspices of California’s 7-year-old prison realignment law, AB 109. As the clock ticks down to his eventual release, Dennis said he still hasn’t found a place to live or a job, and hasn’t even figured out just how he’ll get from Tehachapi to the Central Coast, where he’ll need to report to probation officials. He wants to start his new life in SLO or Santa Barbara, where he is originally from. His letters described what he called his “unfortunate plight” in a months-long correspondence with New Times.

“I have no resources at all,” Dennis wrote.

Since AB 109 was signed into law in 2011, SLO County has been trying to help individuals like Dennis, using an influx of state funding to provide programs, housing, and other resources to help them successfully transition into the community and avoid reoffending. But to get at those resources, Dennis will have to navigate an uncertain no-man’s-land between the time he leaves state prison and arrives back on the Central Coast with very little to his name.

“I’m starting life totally over,” Dennis wrote.

A new normal

California’s state prisons were overflowing with inmates when Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 109 and a companion bill, AB 117, into law. Under the new laws, referred to as “realignment,” newly convicted low-level offenders without prior serious or violent offenses would serve their sentences in county jail instead of state prison.

The law also created a whole new system for certain state prison inmates who are released back into their communities. Previously, inmates released from state prisons would be supervised by the state’s parole system. But AB 109 transferred the responsibility of supervising inmates convicted of non-violent, non-serious, and some sex offenses to California’s 58 counties. It’s called post-release community supervision (PRCS), and in SLO County, the job of monitoring the PRCS population falls to the Probation Department and its chief officer, Jim Salio.

While realignment was a controversial and divisive issue when it was first approved, in the years since it went into effect, local probation departments like Salio’s have had time to adjust to the demands of the PRCS system.

“We’ve adapted, and it’s become the new normal,” said Salio, who also serves as president of the Chief Probation Officers of California.

The number of PRCS individuals in SLO fluctuates. According a 2017 annual report, the department receives an average of 26 new PRCS offenders per quarter, and their total population stood at about 137 in the final quarter of that same year. It’s a 12.3 percent increase from the same quarter in 2014. As of Aug. 16, Salio said that population stood at 234 individuals. Santa Barbara County has a slightly larger population of PRCS offenders, an estimated 304 in July 2018. An annual report from the Santa Barbara County Probation Department projected that that number would climb to 320 by June 2019.

The state provides funding to help counties like SLO and Santa Barbara cope with the influx of more offenders to jails and probation departments due to realignment. Each county has flexibility in how it allocates those funds. Every county has a Community Corrections Partnership (CCP) plan, which is created and updated each year by a collection of county stakeholders including law enforcement, probation, social services, and others. According to data from the California Bureau of State and Community Corrections, SLO County received a realignment budget allocation of more than $8.7 million for the 2017-18 fiscal year, a $900,000 increase from the previous fiscal year. The SLO Probation Department got more than $1.2 million of the 2017-18 funding, with the rest being divided up between other county agencies like the Superior Court, the Public Defender’s and District Attorney’s offices, and county Drug and Alcohol and Mental Health agencies. Santa Barbara County had a total realignment budget allocation of more than $13.4 million for the 2017-18 fiscal year, up from $12.1 million in 2016-17.

Some of that money helps provide programs and resources for PRCS offenders like Dennis.

“Many of them are coming back home to their community,” said Santa Barbara County Probation Department Spokesperson Karyn Mulligan. “We want these services to be there for them.”

A helping hand

“I was a career criminal until I came into this program,” Boyd says in a promotional video created by SLO County. Boyd says he was released into SLO County’s PRCS program after serving a sentence in the California Men’s Colony. He entered the program four years ago and says the services and resources he was able to access helped him break the cycle of crime and addiction that landed him in prison.

“It changed me,” he says. “I did a whole 180 from where I was to where I am today.”

Boyd’s story is the outcome that counties like SLO and Santa Barbara want as a result of the funding they invest in programs for offenders released back into their communities under AB 109. The goal, of course, is to help them lead productive lives and keep them from reoffending. To do that, counties have to meet myriad needs, everything from housing and work to substance abuse support and education.

In SLO County, one of the most important tools in assisting newly released PRCS offenders is its Post-Release Offender Meeting (PROM). After they are released, inmates are required to attend a PROM meeting. The meetings, a collaboration between SLO County’s probation and behavioral health departments, act as a hub for PRCS offenders’ needs. There, they can be connected with a number of resources, including employment services, vocational training, transportation, substance abuse counseling, tattoo removal, and other support services.

“We tell them that we are here to help them,” Salio said. “We really want them to take advantage of those services.”

After PROM, the county also has three regional clinics staffed with a therapist and a case manager to provide ongoing support. In his video testimonial, Boyd said the program helped him pay rent at a sober living facility and enroll in classes at Cuesta College. Prior to that, he hadn’t set foot in a classroom for 38 years. Four years after finishing the program, Boyd says he can still rely on help and guidance from the county.

“If I have a problem, I can walk into any of these counselors’ offices … and say ‘I need to talk,’” he said.

Santa Barbara provides similar hubs for its PRCS population. The county operates two Probation Report and Resource Centers. Here, offenders can get needs assessments, participate in classes and programs, and get connected with services to meet their basic needs. In addition, the county is moving to strengthen its PRCS efforts through participation in Results First, an initiative to use public safety performance data and cost-benefit analysis to make decisions about where best to allocate realignment funding. Mulligan said the county is also in the process of hiring a community liaison, who will help facilitate communication feedback from the PRCS population.

“We not only want to find out what needs they have, but we want to see how we can tell them about services we provide that they might not know about,” she said.

All the funding and services offered in both counties are targeted for a very specific goal, keeping PRCS offenders from violating their probation. Salio noted that while PRCS offenders generally have a high risk of reoffending, their recidivism rate in SLO County was 31.3 percent in 2017, 6 percent lower than the county’s regular felony probation population and more than 10 percent below that of its misdemeanor probation population. Salio said that the lower rate was a direct result of the services the county was able to provide to PRCS offenders with realignment funds.

“Realignment came with a lot of money,” he said. “We really invested in those services.”

Whether he ends up in SLO or Santa Barbara, it’s clear that the chances of soon-to-be-released inmate Dennis’ story will end like Boyd’s will depend heavily upon getting connected with the programs each county offers.

“Without a place to live or a way to earn money, what would you estimate my chances of success?” he wrote.

Sober living

Even though he hasn’t lived on the Central Coast for the last two years, Dennis’ main concern is all too familiar to most non-incarcerated residents: housing.

In his letters, Dennis worried about finding a place to live once he was released, specifically a recovery residence home. Dennis said he’d completed a substance abuse program while in prison. Formerly known as “sober living homes,” recovery residences give individuals recovering from addiction a semi-structured drug-free living environment and support to stay clean.

Both SLO and Santa Barbara counties acknowledged the vital role recovery residences play for PRCS offenders. SLO allocated $384,828 in 2016-17 for sober and traditional housing, while Santa Barbara County allocated more than $1.3 million.

But availability of beds in residential recovery houses may not be enough to meet the demand of the PRCS population. In its annual report, SLO County stated that it expanded availability to 16 recovery residences with a total of 154 beds. However, the same report also stated that the percentage of offenders who received residential recovery services climbed from just 14 percent in 2012 to 71 percent in 2017. The demand for safe and sober living environments has increased countywide, and is strained even further by a lack of affordable housing.

“Substance abuse and mental health treatment continue to be in high demand both in custody and in the community, stretching capacity to its limits,” the report stated.

Santa Barbara County has a similar problem. Its 2017-18 realignment report stated that 11 percent of realigned offenders were able to secure subsidized housing last year. In an attempt to expand availability, the county added new sober living options in the Lompoc area and tasked a committee of various community stakeholders to inventory existing housing options and make recommendations to the Community Corrections Partnership group.

“Maintaining long-term supportive housing and substance use continue to be substantial barriers for the realigned population,” the report stated.

Whether Dennis ends up finding a recovery residence remains up in the air as he waits for his release. Of the 23 residences he wrote to from prison asking for information and placement, he said he’s received only two responses. One was from New Times notifying him that he’d mistakenly written to a newspaper instead of a sober living facility, and the other was from a jail fellowship in Fresno. As his release looms, he worries about ending up on the street.

“To be homeless at 56 years old would be a challenge I do not want to face,” he wrote.

In between

While both Santa Barbara and SLO County have invested their realignment funding into a host of programs and services that could help address many of the concerns Dennis has, his letters indicate that he hasn’t heard much about those opportunities in the run-up to his release from state prison in Tehachapi.

“This institution’s pre-release social workers have informed me that I am on my own in regards to obtaining any assistance,” he wrote. “I can ask [county] probation for some help once I am released. Basically, they are telling me that, initially, I will be on the street.”

Under realignment, the Department of Corrections’ responsibility for a PRCS-bound inmate is over once they are released. Documents from a 2017 training presentation showed that inmates do meet with correctional counselors, who along with other staff conduct pre-release assessments and reports, which are then delivered to county probation officials. When it comes to the offenders themselves, the presentation simply stated that they are given $200, less the cost of release clothing, and public transportation to their designated release program.

“We don’t do a lot with them. It’s up to the county,” said California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Luis Patino. “We do a little on the pre-release efforts, but the whole supervision effort really goes to the county.”

Whatever preparation he does get for life outside of prison, Dennis expressed a determination to try and make up for his past mistakes and hope that the support he might get from whichever county he ends up in would help him do just that.

“I am 56 years old and starting completely over in life,” he wrote. “I am sincere in my endeavor to live life in a far better way.”