With three-year recidivism rates hovering around 65 percent on average, California has the worst record in the nation when it comes to released offenders returning to prison. [See: PLN, March 2012, p.46]. In the words of criminology professor Joan Petersilia, “California epitomizes revolving door justice in the United States.”
To address this problem, the California legislature responded by passing two measures. In 2009, state lawmakers passed Senate Bill X3 18, which created a $9.5 million pilot program that established Parolee Reentry Courts in six counties (Alameda, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, San Joaquin and Santa Clara).
According to a fact sheet produced by California’s Administrative Office of the Courts, “The reentry court teams are authorized to determine the appropriate conditions of parole, order rehabilitation and treatment services to be provided, determine appropriate incentives, order appropriate sanctions, lift parole holds, and hear and determine appropriate responses to alleged violations.”
Then, in 2011, the legislature passed Assembly Bill 109, a budget bill intended to restructure public safety by, among other means, shifting responsibility for parole violations to local jurisdictions generally, with judges making revocation decisions instead of the state Board of Parole Hearings. Such a shift could result in a significant downsizing of the Board and its $200 million budget; in turn, this could present an opportunity to pay for AB 109’s otherwise-unfunded restructuring.
By diverting money from a downsized Board of Parole Hearings, Korber suggests in her report that the state could convert the collaborative drug courts that now exist in most California counties into Parolee Reentry Courts. Then, if the Reentry Courts are successful in stopping the revolving prison door – as has been the case, apparently, in the six counties participating in the pilot program – the money saved could be channeled into local treatment programs and job training for parolees.
To the extent the proposal works, it would be a win/win/win situation: parolees would be given an opportunity to re-build their lives, communities would be safer and taxpayers would save on the costs of unnecessary re-incarceration.
In San Joaquin County, after just seven months the Reentry Court had saved taxpayers millions of dollars, according to Judge Richard Vlavianos. Of the 135 parolees who have gone through his court, only three – less than 3% – were re-incarcerated.
The most-established Reentry Court is in Santa Clara County. There, Judge Stephen V. Manley heads a team of a dozen people – lawyers, psychologists, doctors, parole agents and probation officers – who work together with the goal of helping parolees stay off drugs and out of prison. After three years of operation, the team can boast an 80% success rate.
The key to the Reentry Court’s success is its collaborative rather than adversarial approach. And, by all accounts, having the right judge is essential. “Our 80 percent completion rate is a result of sticking with people over time,” stated Judge Manley. He added, “You need to motivate people to change. It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card with no accountability – they spend time in the treatment programs, [or] they do time in jail if they screw up.”
“Anyone who participates in this process loves it,” said Judge Vlavianos. “It’s contagious. Our parolees are telling other parolees on the run to turn themselves in. You can see the change in the defendants, once you establish trust with them. The light just goes on.”
There are those who are not so enthused about the Reentry Court program, though, including some prosecutors. Others question the entire need for or existence of parole in the first place.
Sources: “A Courtroom Unlike Any Other,” Dorothy Korber, California Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes (June 1, 2011); Administrative Office of the Courts fact sheet
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