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Increasing Number of Walkaways from California Early-Release Programs

by Ed Lyon 

In 2018, almost half of California’s 50 prison escapees walked away from early-release programs where they were finishing their sentences – more than double the number of “walkaways” in 2014, the first year the programs were established. While the number represents only a tiny fraction of the 126,000 prisoners held by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), victims’ rights groups have voiced concerns.

“Oh my gosh, that’s a lot,” Christine Ward, director of the Crime Victims Action Alliance, said of the number of walkaways.

Early-release program guidelines exclude known gang members, sex offenders and prisoners who pose a risk of violence. But according to a review of CDCR data by the Associated Press, some of the walkaways in 2018 had been convicted of weapons offenses – including one for armed attempted carjacking and another for injuring a spouse – as well as robberies, false imprisonment with violence and extortion using force or threat.

“They are letting the people out that shouldn’t be out,” warned Crime Victims United of California founder Harriet Salarno.

“When you’re talking about second-degree robbery or felons who are desperate, what do desperate people do?” wondered Ward.

The CDCR “takes the issue of walkaways very seriously,” stated spokeswoman Vicky Waters, who said a review of the men’s early-release program for factors contributing to the increase in walkaways had led to improvements focused on more successfully reintegrating prisoners into society, though she did not provide specific examples.

In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Plata affirmed a lower court’s finding that overcrowding was so severe in the state’s 46 adult correctional facilities run by the CDCR that the resulting deprivation of medical and mental health services violated prisoners’ constitutional right against cruel and unusual punishment. [See: PLN, July 2011, p.1].

Since then, the CDCR’s population has declined over 22% from its 2011 peak of 162,000 prisoners, thanks to initiatives like early-release, realignment (moving certain state prisoners to county jails) and pre-trial diversion programs, as well as several voter-enacted laws:

• Proposition 47, which in 2014 reclassified crimes such as drug possession and check-kiting from felonies to misdemeanors. [See: PLN, June 2018, p.50].

• Proposition 57, a 2016 measure that reformed parole and juvenile prosecution policies.

• Senate Bill 1437, which in 2018 abolished felony murder convictions for defendants who did not directly commit a murder that occurred during a crime in which they were involved. [See: PLN, Dec. 2018, p.12].

In the CDCR’s early-release program, select prisoners who have a year left to serve on their sentences are sent to re-entry facilities to help them re-associate with family members and learn coping skills before returning to the community. Female prisoners have programs in Bakersfield, Sacramento, San Diego, Santa Fe Springs and Stockton, while male prisoners have programs in Butte, Kern and San Diego counties, plus three in Los Angeles County. The re-entry facilities are surrounded by a single fence without armed guards or sentry towers. All a prisoner has to do to abscond is remove a GPS monitoring device and walk away, or not return when outside the facility for an approved reason. 

Over the past three years, only two female prisoners have failed to return to early-release programs. In 2018, however, 24 of 600 male prisoners walked away from the facilities. Only one escaped from inside the secure perimeter of a CDCR prison. The overwhelming majority of early-release program walkaways are arrested within a day by agents with California’s Special Service Unit, a division of the Office of Correctional Safety that employs dozens of officers who specialize in locating escapees.

Still, the early-release program has its defenders, including Laura Dixon, spokeswoman for Chief Probation Officers of California. She pointed out that the Butte County re-entry facility boasts a recidivism rate of just three percent for program graduates.

“There’s going to be a certain percentage of folks that won’t graduate the program or may walk away,” said Dixon, who nevertheless believes the early-release programs “really reduce recidivism and give these people who are trying to re-enter our communities the support they need.” 

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Sources: Los Angeles Times, abcl0.com, sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com