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To Redeem a Felon 

State laws are putting more criminals on our streets. We go inside local efforts to deal with them.

California has a serious prison problem: By 2006 the state had locked up so many people that its prison system bursting at the seams. The number of inmates in California's 33 prisons had ballooned to an all-time high of 173,000, more than double the capacity they'd been designed to hold. Inmates were squeezed into triple-bunk beds in hallways, gymnasiums and program rooms. And still there wasn't enough space.

Riots and melees increased. So did assaults on prison staff and fellow inmates. The suicide rate among inmates approached one per week, nearly 80 percent higher than the average in prisons nationwide. California prisons started suffering regular blackouts because their electrical systems were so overloaded. Their wastewater systems overflowed, spilling thousands of gallons of sewage into the environment. They were the subject of multiple lawsuits. Their medical program was placed in federal receivership. This was a full-blown crisis.

On Oct. 4, 2006, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency, noting that severe overcrowding had created "conditions of extreme peril" in California's prison system. This declaration, which remains in effect to this day, gave the state a legal loophole allowing it to send nearly 10,000 prisoners to private facilities in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma. These facilities are run by the country's largest for-profit prison company, Corrections Corporation of America, which is charging California taxpayers roughly $318 million per year -- more than $33,000 per inmate.

Even that didn't solve the overcrowding crisis, which is made worse by a 70 percent recidivism rate, the highest rate of repeat offenders in the United States. (A nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world, by the way.) In May of last year the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in and with a 5-4 vote affirmed a ruling by the Eastern and Northern U.S. District Courts, which found conditions in California's prisons so outrageously bad that they violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Examples were cited: A prisoner who'd been held in a cage for nearly 24 hours was observed "standing in a pool of his own urine, unresponsive and nearly catatonic." Another, who was literally bleeding from his eyeballs and suffering high blood pressure, diabetes and kidney failure, was referred to a specialist, but the consultation never happened and he died three months later.

The ruling quoted a lower court's finding that people were effectively being executed through systematic neglect: "An inmate in one of California's prisons needlessly dies every six to seven days due to constitutional deficiencies in the medical delivery system."

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the Supreme Court's majority opinion, said that California's prison system "is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society."

The court ordered California to reduce its prison population by more than 60,000. By June 27 of next year, the number of inmates must be down to 110,000. That would still represent 137.5 percent of the design capacity for these facilities, and yet state corrections officials recently conceded that they probably won't be able to hit that target by the deadline. They asked the court to increase the cap to 144 percent of design capacity.

The state's prison population has declined, though, from 173,000 to 133,590 as of Sept. 12. (That's counting the 13,635 inmates housed in private facilities or serving in fire camps.) Those numbers have fallen because of "public safety realignment," a solution devised by the state assembly and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown. Effective since Oct. 1 of last year, Assembly bills 109 and 117 mandate that people convicted of certain non-serious, non-violent and non-sex-related felonies will serve their sentences in local jails rather than state prisons.

The responsibility for supervising these offenders, along with other "low-risk" offenders being released from prison, now falls to county probation departments rather than state parole. These local offices, including the one here in Humboldt County, have been directed to use programs that have proven effective in treating and rehabilitating offenders -- assessment tools, behavioral therapy groups, job training programs and more. Analysts have called it the most sweeping change to California's criminal justice system in more than 50 years.

By Monday, the program will have been in effect for a year. What's changed here in Humboldt County?

Earlier this month, KIEM opened its evening news broadcast with a dramatic report. The camera focused in on an Arcata woman, shot from the neck down because she feared for her safety. She'd recently had her money, credit cards and keys stolen, just one of "hundreds of victims of theft in Humboldt County."  Property crimes have seen a "staggering" increase in the past year, a "direct effect" of realignment, the report claimed.

Reporter Kelly May gave no information about the perpetrator of the Arcata theft. But she interviewed Arcata Police Sgt. Todd Dokweiler and Eureka Police Chief Murl Harpham, both of whom blamed realignment for an alleged crime wave. A 20 percent increase in property crime in both Eureka and Arcata. Thefts up 12 percent in Eureka. Car thefts up 102 percent. "I've never seen it this bad," said Harpham, who at age 78 has served 55 years with the Eureka Police Department.

The report cut to May standing in front of the county jail. Police, she said, say the issue leads back to this building. "There's not enough room to house offenders that would otherwise have been housed, so they walk out the front doors and back to the life of crime that they know," May said somberly.

Making matters worse, according to Harpham, law-breakers aren't afraid of getting caught anymore. "There's no deterrent," he said, his hands crossed and brow furrowed.

Is this what realignment has wrought? A society where crime runs rampant and criminals go unpunished?

After speaking with a broad cross-section of people working on realignment in Humboldt, we found the issue to be far more complex than that. We found a community that's attempting a monumental transition -- from a criminal justice system based on punishment and confinement to one based on intervention and rehabilitation (or at least the potential for rehabilitation). A community that tries to address the causes of criminal behavior rather than writing off its criminals and shipping them to prisons hundreds of miles away.

Noble (or naïve) as that may sound, it's a transition borne less of strategy than of desperation and necessity. And its implementation thus far has been frenzied. California didn't have the luxury of careful planning; the Supreme Court's deadline is rapidly approaching. One thing is clear: Fewer of the people who commit crimes in Humboldt County will be whisked away and locked in distant cells. More will remain here, among us. The question now is how we're going to deal with them.

 

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Realignment may have been a desperate reaction to California's prison crisis, but the idea wasn't pulled out of thin air. In 2009 the state passed the California Community Corrections Performance Incentives Act. This new law awarded funding to county probation departments that proved successful in supervising felony probationers. Specifically, probation departments used evidence-based practices -- that is, techniques that had proven effective -- to keep probationers on track, and the ones that saw positive results received state funding as an incentive to keep at it. Humboldt County's probation office, led by Chief Probation Officer Bill Damiano, was among the successful.

"That's what got the governor and Legislature thinking about realignment, was we [county probation departments] were having some successes with probation," Damiano said in a recent interview. His office sits in a squat building at the back of a parking lot behind Eureka's defunct General Hospital. Stern and analytical, with steely eyes and a thick crop of brown hair, Damiano is well-suited to this intervention approach. He worked in mental health before joining Humboldt County's probation department in 1988. With a degree in psychology from San Diego State, he not only believes in his department's ability to affect criminal behavior, that's where he finds meaning in his job.

"When the governor saw [our success] he said, ‘Let's take that a step further. ... Maybe the local guys can do a better job.'"

Damiano is convinced of it.

"I don't think that we created better citizens by sending them off to prison," he said. California's prisons in particular are notorious for being racially segregated, ruled by gangs and rife with violence, an environment that, according to Damiano, forces people to adopt antisocial values. "We just dip them in antisocial goo. I mean we train them to be antisocial."

The result has been the so-called "revolving door" of our criminal justice system. The department of state government that manages our prisons is called, somewhat redundantly, "Corrections and Rehabilitation," but in practice it is lousy at both. Damiano, on the other hand, said that in the years since he started in probation, the county department has gotten progressively more sophisticated in identifying characteristics and behaviors that contribute statistically to criminal activity. These factors range from the obvious, like criminal history, substance abuse issues and employment status, to more subtle indicators like attitudes and beliefs.

People placed on probation in Humboldt County are assessed using an interview tool called STRONG, which stands for Static Risk and Offender Needs Guide. With this, probation officers assess how likely each person is to reoffend. On one end of the spectrum, Damiano said, are those bound and determined to live lives of crime. They require monitoring more than intervention. On the other end are those who made a one-time mistake and have learned their lesson. Evidence shows that monitoring this group too closely makes them more likely to reoffend.

It's the big group in the middle that can benefit from intervention and rehabilitation efforts.

A couple weeks after our first interview, Damiano offered a tour of the county's new resource center at 404 H St. in Eureka. Formerly home to a Fidelity National Title office, the building now serves as a "one-stop shop" for people on what's called post-release community supervision -- those released from prison who, prior to realignment, would have been placed on parole. (The distinction is important because people who slip up while on parole go back to prison, adding to the overcrowding there. People who falter on community supervision stay in Humboldt, with added controls.) Staff here also works with people who've been given "split sentences," meaning they serve part of their sentence in jail and part under mandatory supervision.

Strategically located near the courts and county jail, the resource center is staffed by probation officers, county health workers, substance abuse counselors and community-based organization workers offering a variety of services: detox and drug treatment, general relief sign-ups, adult education resources, job training info and more.

The county's public defender, Kevin Robinson, said this building alone represents an improvement over the old system. "Part of the problem with people getting out on parole in the past is they didn't get any help figuring out how to get a job, how to register for services, how to seek out different types of programs. Or if they did they got the runaround -- one office one day, another office the next day. It was overwhelming."

Inside the building, Damiano introduced Supervising Probation Officer Paula Sargent. "We just call her ‘Sarge,'" he said.

Walking through the resource center, she pointed out some of the tools used to monitor and manage its charges. Like parents of teenagers, resource center staff employs both encouragement and discipline. Classes are offered -- résumé building, computer skills, money management -- as are cognitive behavioral groups. Through one wall we could hear murmuring voices -- a group therapy session designed to improve moral reasoning skills, Sargent explained.

Lest we forget that the people who come here are criminals, Sargent walked into another room where she reached into a drawer and pulled out a plastic drug-test cup. It had a label that changes color depending on the substances present in the urine that will soon splash inside. In another room she brought out a cardboard box from which she pulled an ankle bracelet used for electronic monitoring of people awaiting sentencing.

Until realignment, 70 to 80 percent of the county jail's population was waiting to be sentenced. After sentencing, many were shipped off to prison. Now more criminals are serving their time in the jail instead. Some will spend as long as three years there. To accommodate these long-term residents, room has to be made.

This is where Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey comes in. The jail, which has a current capacity of 411, is managed by Downey's department. Working with the courts, the sheriff's department developed a matrix system to determine who should be released when.

"Right now our population is pretty manageable," Downey said in a recent interview over coffee in Old Town Eureka. "Like this morning," he said, pulling his Blackberry out of his pocket and punching a few buttons. "We're at, like, 360." How is the jail not overflowing like our prisons? In addition to the people now awaiting trial under electronic monitoring, the number of parolees in county jail has also been reduced by working with the state, Downey said. And some inmates are being released before the end of their sentences, "if they haven't been unruly."

Another twist: Under realignment, people sentenced to jail terms get "day-for-a-day" credit, meaning every day they spend in jail counts for two days toward their sentence. As a result, they're released into the community sooner.

Which leads to a very important question: What type of people has realignment unleashed into our community?

 

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As mentioned above, the folks being handled by the county under realignment have been convicted of felonies deemed non-serious, non-violent and non-sex-related. The most common offenses, Damiano said, are drug-related crimes (possession, possession for sale, transportation), property crimes, burglaries and possession of stolen property.

But that doesn't mean we're talking about the teddy bears of convicted felons. Realignment sentencing guidelines apply to the current offense being charged; they don't take criminal history into account. And many people now in the program have long rap sheets, including some with serious and violent crimes in their past.

"Roughly 80 percent of the people we're dealing with under realignment are high-risk offenders, just from the criminal convictions in their backgrounds," Damiano said. "High-risk" meaning they're more likely to reoffend. Some have as many as 30 felonies to their names. By comparison, of the total number of felony offenders now under probation's jurisdiction (a little over 1,700, Damiano said) roughly 40 percent are considered high risk. The group of felons here under realignment is much smaller -- currently between 170 and 180 -- but twice as likely to commit new crimes.

Which brings us back to the scary news report about Humboldt County's crime wave. Is realignment to blame? Taking a step back, is there in fact a crime wave?

According to numbers provided by the Eureka and Arcata police departments, property crimes through August are indeed 20 percent higher than during the same period last year. Car thefts in particular are up. Through August of last year there were 21 in Arcata and 93 in Eureka. This year so far there have been 58 in Arcata and 127 in Eureka. The county has also seen a jump in property crimes, especially burglaries. The period of May through July of this year saw 139 burglaries in the unincorporated parts of the county, compared to 86 during that stretch last year, a 62 percent jump. (Counter-intuitively, though, assaults dropped by 17 percent and thefts decreased by 7 percent during the same period.)

Damiano said those numbers may or may not be related to realignment. "Lots of factors can contribute to arrest data," he said, from administrative policies (Eureka had a different police chief through the first half of last year) to increased manpower (Eureka's Measure O has boosted tax revenues for public safety) to methods of policing and, of course, the actual number of crimes being committed.

"Affixing causation isn't possible without more information," Damiano said.

Sheriff Downey agreed, pointing out that crime rates are affected by social and economic factors, too. "Crime has gone up because people are out of work and there are a lot of pressures in our society as a whole," he said.

Looking closer at the numbers, it doesn't appear that our streets are any more dangerous than they were before realignment. "We've actually seen a few decreases in violent crime," particularly assualts, said Arcata's Sgt. Dokweiler. In Eureka, violent crime numbers are essentially unchanged since last year. Assaults and rapes have both decreased. And at the county level, during the three-month windows of 2011 and 2012 provided to the Journal, violent crime was down this year by 23 percent.

Damiano said he wasn't suggesting that criminals under his office's purview aren't committing new crimes. "We know they are," he said. But these guys were committing new crimes before realignment, too. "That's why they were going back to prison. I mean, these are the highest-risk offenders. It's exactly what I would expect from them. ...

"I know cops are concerned with having more criminals in the community," Damiano continued. "I share that concern. My response to that is, ‘Great. Work with me as a partner.'" The law enforcement community, the courts and the corrections system all need to work together if the community hopes to change criminal behavior, he said.

Realignment has been organized to encourage just such cooperation. Each county has a multi-agency Community Corrections Partnership that meets regularly to analyze data and update approaches to managing the program. Humboldt County's partnership currently includes Damiano, Downey, District Attorney Paul Gallegos, Public Defender Kevin Robinson, Health and Human Services Director Phillip Crandall, Court Executive Officer Kerri Keenan and Ferndale Police Chief Bret Smith.

 

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Crime stats are hardly the only challenge presented by California's drastic reshuffling of its criminal justice system. The changes are straining everything from health care to social services to jail management. Phillip Crandall, the county's health and human services director, said many of the people coming out of prison have substance abuse disorders and severe mental illnesses that have gone undiagnosed and untreated. Prison "certainly exacerbated" the problems, Crandall said. Funding and management of 12 health and human services programs have been shifted from the state to counties, but not nearly enough time was allotted to smooth such an ambitious and complicated transition. Crandall said that providing health services to the jail is now considerably more difficult. He's trying to figure out how to upgrade staffing for psychiatric evaluations, medication delivery and crisis evaluations, among other challenges.

Inside the jail, more serious criminals are locked up for much longer stretches of time.  "Our county facilities are not meant for long-term housing. They're not designed that way," Sheriff Downey said. "We don't have the recreation yards or the ability for them to get out like in a state facility."

As the jail serves the purpose of a prison, it has started to see more prison-type problems. In one of the jail's direct supervision units, which houses 60 people, inmates have been expressing more racially motivated anger. Altercations have been breaking out. On a tour of the jail, Sheriff's Department Lt. Dean Flint said guys who've spent years in prison are now implementing prison rules in jail. For example, a white inmate recently was beaten by other white inmates for taking potato chips from a bag after a black inmate. Another rule: Whites should never take the bottom bunk if a black inmate is on the top. It's considered submissive and will get you "socked up." If you miss an opportunity to sock up a child molester, you will get socked up.

"We're struggling with it right now," Flint said. Jail staff is being taught to engage with inmates and keep them busy. One technique is to hold contests -- football pools or NASCAR brackets with candy bars for the winner.

Flint used an analogy to describe the effects of prison. "When I was a kid, I spent a month in Canada, and when I came back I sounded Canadian. You spend 10 years in prison, you'll come out with a prison accent." He described the prison accent as "racism and hate."

For county officials trying to manage realignment, the most frightening part is not knowing if the state will continue funding the program sufficiently. In last year's tense, down-to-the-wire budget negotiations, money for realignment was allocated legislatively. But so far, Gov. Brown has not signed a constitutional amendment guaranteeing funding into the future, as he promised to do.

With the state hovering on the brink of insolvency, Brown is urging voters to pass Proposition 30, which would increase sales tax from 7.25 percent to 7.5 percent and raise income taxes on people making more than $250,000 per year. Damiano worries that if the tax measure doesn't pass, legislators may be forced to weigh public safety against other fundamental priorities like education and health care, and realignment funding might end up gutted.

Crandall is worried, too. "Now the counties have got the tiger by the tail, so to speak, financially," he said. If realignment had been a policy-driven transition rather than a frenzied budgetary move, Crandall believes the county could have been more successful with the first wave of offenders. He and his staff are still trying to set up the supportive structures necessary for this new challenge -- initial screenings, supportive housing and treatment programs.

"Given the adequate resources and the time," he said, "I'm absolutely convinced that counties can do a better job than the state."

 

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This belief in the potential of realignment hinges on belief in rehabilitation, in the potential for change in an individual and a community. This optimistic attitude doesn't come easily to the people on the front lines of law enforcement, the ones who see criminals day in and day out, arresting some of the same people again and again.

Eureka Police Chief Murl Harpham remains convinced that realignment was a bad idea, one that grants get-out-of-jail-free cards to criminals hardwired to reoffend. The only solution, in his mind, is to lock them up.

"If they're in prison, they're not committing crime. That's the bottom line," he said. "They're there for punishment. They're not there as a reward."

Asked if rehabilitation is even possible, Harpham sounded skeptical. "There have been some cases," he allowed. "I haven't seen a lot of ‘em over the years."

When Sheriff Downey was asked if the county has a better shot than the state at affecting rehabilitation, he had to think about it. He repeated the word slowly -- "rehabilitation" -- like it was the name of someone he hadn't thought about in years. Does he believe rehabilitation is possible? "Um," he said. After a long pause he answered, "Early on. Early on."

If you wait until they've taken a few trips through the revolving door it's too late. Downey told a story from before realignment about a guy he'd known for some time, who he found locked up in the jail waiting to be shipped off to state prison. This was a guy who'd served several prison terms already, and Downey couldn't understand why he was back.

"I said, ‘What are you doing here again?' He goes, ‘It's no big deal. I'll go do 18 months. It's no big deal.'" Prison. No big deal. So much for the idea that it's a deterrent, at least for this type of career criminal. "It's nothin' for them," Downey said. "It's almost like a respite from the street."

The anecdote clearly said something important to the sheriff. Toward the end of our conversation in the coffee shop he said this about realignment: "I think it's going to be a good thing. It's going to make us sit back and look at what we're doing with our prison system in California."

District Attorney Paul Gallegos said that when people break the law they will still be prosecuted, but the post-conviction options may look different. Some will be given the opportunity to make amends. Rather than becoming a further drain on the community, getting three square meals and a bed in jail, they might agree to volunteer for local nonprofits.

"I'm not saying I appreciate the challenges that [realignment] has thrown at me, at this community," Gallegos said. "But we have to work with it. ... I think that, at the end of the day, collaborative, cooperative problem-solving helps. And we have a lot of good people working on this."

Back at his office, Damiano said he recognizes the difficulty of the challenge facing the county's Community Corrections Partnership and the community at large. A variety of local professionals are meeting with offenders one at a time, trying to tease out the underlying causes of their criminal behavior and then help them change old patterns through everything from detox and ankle bracelets to therapy, education and on-the-job training.

It's a lot of work, and Damiano admits that in many cases the efforts will probably prove futile. But unlike others in law enforcement, Damiano said unequivocally, "People can change." He has proven techniques for doing so and tools that show who's likely to be most receptive. "Granted, not a lot of them change rapidly. And there's no on-off switch for criminal behavior. ... People are a whole hell of a lot more complex than that." But it's possible.

Like any systemic change this large and complex, it will no doubt take years before the full impacts of California's public safety realignment are clear. As the state tries to emerge from the nightmare of barbaric mass imprisonment, and sets its eyes toward redemption, much will depend on its ability and willingness to fund such an enormous social experiment.

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About The Author

Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns

Bio:
Ryan Burns worked for the Journal from 2008 to 2013, covering a diverse mix of North Coast subjects, from education, politics and marijuana to human suspension, sex parties and amateur fight contests. He won awards for investigative reporting, feature stories and news coverage.

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