Sadaf Syed for Al Jazeera America

Calif. counties cope with released prisoners, many homeless

Realignment of state corrections system shifts burden to county jails and probation departments

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – The waiting room at the Riverside County Adult Services Division on Franklin Street was filling up. Names were called and people filed in to report to their probation officers. About 130 people file through the lobby daily.

But some walked in and went straight to one of two machines that look like bank ATMs. They entered their PIN, answered a few questions about employment and residence, and a camera snapped their photo. In a few minutes, they were checked in and got a receipt to prove it.

On a recent Thursday, 16-year-old Maira Lopez Becerra accompanied her father, Benito Lopez Ruiz, 45, on his quarterly visit to the probation department. A firearm possession charge in 2012 sent the truck driver to county jail for 270 days with three years probation.

“It’s a lot easier,” Becerra said of the kiosk check-in.

The kiosks are one small step counties across California are taking to handle the flood of recently released prisoners coming under county supervision because of a major realignment of the state corrections system.

Under the Public Safety Realignment Act passed in 2011, the state gave counties responsibility for managing offenders convicted of a felony offense that is nonserious, nonviolent and nonsexual. Before then, these “triple-non” offenders served their sentences in state prisons and reported to state parole when released. Now, even parole violators end up in county jail.

The dramatic overhaul came after the Supreme Court declared that overcrowding in California’s prisons violated the Eighth Amendment, which protects inmates against cruel and unusual punishment. The main concerns were poor medical and mental health care and the state was ordered to reduce prison population by nearly 50,000, or 30 percent.

The state solution was to transfer low-level offenders to county jails and county probation departments, a process that began in October 2011.

Realignment has reduced the annual prison admissions from up to 65,000 to fewer than 36,000 a year, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Overall, the diversion of low-level offenders and parole violators to county jails has cut state prison population by about 25,000.

Those are great results for the state but a huge challenge for the counties that have inherited thousands of offenders.

“It’s a gift that keeps on giving,” said Reaver Bingham, deputy chief of field services with Los Angeles County Probation Department, among the largest in the world. “All the counties are having to deal with this in their own way but proportionately speaking, the scale of Los Angeles is always kind of off the charts.”

Los Angeles County received an average 1,000 probationers a month for the first six months after realignment went into effect and now gets about 400 to 500 a month. The department added 500 staffers to deal with the influx.

“We’re supervising 3,200 more adult offenders than prior to realignment,” said Mark Hake, Riverside County’s chief probation officer. “We added 143 positions.”

It’s a gift that keeps on giving. All the counties are having to deal with this in their own way but proportionately speaking, the scale of Los Angeles is always kind of off the charts.

Reaver Bingham

Los Angeles County Probation Department

Riverside County Probation had to pour in money to bolster jail operations, mental health services and substance abuse programs.

Luis Patino, spokesman with the state corrections department, said realignment did what criminal justice experts have been recommending for a while.

“There was a whole tier of people being sent to state prison instead of county jail,” he said. “State prisons are all in remote locations but county jails are in areas where they live.”

The idea is that serving time near home can help with rehabilitation and give probationers a better chance of finding work, avoiding drugs and alcohol and not committing new crimes that will land them back behind bars.

“When someone is really removed and taken far away from their normal surroundings," Patino said, "they lose connections and lose the motivation to go back to the community and live a normal life."

Maybe so, but the burden of monitoring and rehabilitating these realignment offenders now rests solely on counties that are wrestling with their own jail overcrowding problems.

“They figured counties could do it cheaper and it saves the state money,” Hake said.

The state is doling out extra money to help counties handle their new caseload: $850 million statewide last year and more than $1 billion in fiscal year 2013-2014, Patino said.

But, “Everybody thinks they need more,” Hake said.

From the clink to the curb

It’s tough enough to get offenders to follow the terms of their probation and check in, sometimes weekly, with probation officers. But when they have no home and no address, it can be a nightmare.

Here in Riverside County, 13 percent of the 3,200 additional adult offenders that came under the probation department’s supervision after realignment are homeless.

In Los Angeles County, more than 12 percent of the 8,300 on probation are homeless.

“Our current number is 1,100 homeless over the course of realignment, cycling in and out,” Bingham said. “It’s not a crime to be homeless but there are ordinances that preclude sleeping in parks and on the streets. They need to get into programs where they have permanent support and housing.”

Some counties reported that up to one in five of the people they’ve inherited under the new law are homeless.

Probation officers have to process every transfer they get from the state prison system, verify an address if there is one, visit them where they’re staying, place them in mental health programs, secure them job and/or drug counseling, and try to find them a home if they don’t have one – either emergency housing or longer-term transitional housing.

A quarter of the homeless never report to probation immediately after they’re released, Bingham said, and even those who do stop reporting at various times.

“In summary, this population brings unique challenges,” he said.

If you don’t have basic human needs of shelter, food and warmth, you’re not going to think, ‘I’m going to check in at my kiosk today.’

Seth Kurzban

professor at USC School of Social Work

Over a 15-month period, 80 percent of the offenders released from prison under Post-Release Community Supervision were assessed as high or moderate risk for recidivism, according to a report released last fall by the Chief Probation Officers of California. 

More than 60 percent needed substance abuse treatment and 20 percent have mental health problems.

And because of limited jail space for parole violators, some counties end up releasing inmates early. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, about 60 percent of inmates released to counties from October 2011 through September 2012 were arrested for new offenses within a year of leaving prison – 16 percent for violent crimes.

Those released to counties under realignment are supposed to be nonserious, nonviolent, nonsexual offenders but that is based on their last conviction. Bingham warns that many may have committed more serious crimes prior to their last offense.

Probation officers also have to be wary of claims of homelessness because some say they are strictly to escape constant scrutiny. In Riverside County, the kiosks have become a powerful tool to supervise the homeless and find out if they really are.

The homeless are supposed to check in daily and probation officers, such as Michelle Ewing, who handles high-risk offenders, and Adam Holliday, who deals with low-risk cases, scrutinize the mug shots that kiosk check-ins provide instantaneously.

Holliday shows the photo of one man who appears clean-shaven, well groomed and wearing a different shirt every day. It’s a big clue that he’s probably not homeless. Another is disheveled and shows up in the same tattered T-shirts.

“He’s probably homeless,” Holliday said.

There are 14 kiosks in county probation offices throughout Riverside County. Seven more have been purchased and may be placed in locations that would be accessible 24/7 rather than just 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., five days a week.

“If you don’t have basic human needs of shelter, food and warmth, you’re not going to think, ‘I’m going to check in at my kiosk today,’” said Seth Kurzban, a professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work who studies mental health services and incarceration policy and prevention. “You’re seeing people getting re-arrested for probation violation and they end up back in jail.”

Plus, he said, someone can be homeless but couch-surfing with friends or relatives and have access to a shower and clean clothes.

“Using mobile technology might be good,” Kurzaban suggested, since many homeless have smartphones.

“One of the things we’re contemplating is using GPS to track this population,” Hake said. “We’d track them for two or three weeks. I don’t believe in GPS for crime prevention but as a tracking tool because of the magnitude of this realignment.”

Two years ago, Riverside County created a Day Reporting Center to handle the extra caseload.

The one-stop center provides services from various agencies under one roof: substance abuse education, anger management, wellness recovery, high school equivalency classes, computer education, help with child support issues, job training and interview clothing.

“The homeless population is a challenge,” Hake said. “We actually have 79 beds under construction for emergency housing.”

What’s needed, Kurzban said, is a more comprehensive approach to treatment of criminal behavior and the poverty or mental illness that often leads to it.

“I don’t think anyone has come up with a comprehensive plan yet,” he said. “How do we arrest fewer people? How do we prevent crime? That, unfortunately, we haven’t heard anything about.”

When the system works

In a residential neighborhood in the hills on the western side of Riverside, the lawns are neatly landscaped and the houses large. It’s a typical middle-class enclave, but one of the homes houses 13 men – 12 under probation and a house manager, Bruce Millsap, who hasn’t done time since the ’80s but was homeless for six months before coming into the house four years ago.

It’s one of the county’s transitional housing facilities, funded by realignment money to the Mental Health Department, that provides temporary shelter to homeless offenders.

“When I got out, I had nowhere to go,” said Wesley Minton, 52, a resident who was released in February after serving 13 years in state prison for drug possession. He’s on probation for three years.

He used the small amount of money he had on motels and checked in at the probation kiosks every day until he was placed in the house. Now he checks in once a week.

The men sit on a sectional in the large living room. The wall-to-wall carpeting is stained but the bay window provides a spectacular view of the city. Ironically, residents have a bird’s eye view of the county jail less than six miles away, a constant reminder of where they will end up if they violate the terms of their probation.

Paul Becker, 51, was put on probation in January after serving three years in the California Institution for Men in Chino. His crime: “I hit my girlfriend because she stole money from me,” said Becker, who suffers from a speech impediment.

He used the kiosks to check in with probation while homeless.

“It seemed a lot easier than waiting for a probation officer,” Becker said. Now his check-ins are monthly.

Richard Huckaby, 61, received Supplemental Security Income three months ago and no longer has to report daily. He should be off probation in November.

“They had me on the kiosks while I stayed in a motel for three and a half months,” he said. “Eventually, they’re going to put me in an apartment. I’ve been in and out of the penitentiary since 1980.” His last conviction was for drug possession.

Randy Medkeff, 48, was sentenced to three years on a domestic violence charge. He served 15 months in prison and two and a half months in county jail and was released on his birthday, May 29.

A former computer consultant who struggled with drug addiction, Medkeff said he’s determined to get his life back in order. He found a job as a window glazer within 30 days of getting out. He walks 45 minutes to catch a bus to work – a two-hour commute each way.

“Prison only helped me get my head together,” Medkeff said, who was sleeping on the steps of the library during his last bout of homelessness. “I’m on three years probation but if my PO [probation officer] decides that I’ve fulfilled my obligation, it should be less.”

The Toledo, Ohio, native has been living in the house free of charge more than three months and hopes to stay longer while he gets the money together to pay for books and tuition at Riverside City College. He wants to become a peer counselor.

He had defaulted on a previous student loan and “the only way I can go to school is pay,” he said. “I’m looking at a 14-hour day.”

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