End of time: Prison system to set up new re-entry facilities

When Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed AB 900 in May, he didn’t just start the next phase in California prison expansion. The new law also calls for the California to add 16,000 new “re-entry beds” located within communities where prisoners could serve the last six to 12 months of their sentences. Corrections officials have now held seven of 11 planned meetings with local officials around the state as they seek to find locations for the re-entry facilities.

“The goal is to put the facility in the area where the parolee population will be returning,” said Department of Corrections spokesman Seth Unger. He noted that except under special circumstances, state law calls for prisoners to be returned to the area where they were living when arrested. “They’re coming back to that community whether they have been rehabilitated or not.”

Each new facility is to contain no more than 500 beds. Some could be far smaller, Unger said. One goal will be to put prisoners near family, friends and possible post-release jobs. Prisoners will also receive pre-release drug treatment, job training and other services. Unger said these facilities will not be “halfway houses” but secure facilities where prisoners stay 24 hours a day.

Local officials have generally been receptive, Unger said. This month, Corrections officials held workshops with leaders in the 10-county Shasta area, another with North San Francisco Bay Area leaders, and one with nine counties near Fresno. On October 5, Corrections will meet with leaders from the greater Los Angeles area–where about 40 percent of the prison population comes from.

California is a latecomer to the “re-entry movement,” said Dr. Joan Petersilia. A professor of criminology at the University of California at Irvine, she is the author the 2003 book When Prisoners Come Home: Parole and Prisoner Re-entry. The movement got a big boost when President George W. Bush spoke favorable about re-entry programs in his 2004 State of the Union address, she said–sentiments later echoed in Schwarzenegger’s State of the State address that year.

Most big states now have re-entry programs, she said–a group that includes not just blue states like Massachusetts and Illinois but Texas. One reason we’re behind, she said, could be the relatively strong state economy in recent years. Well-run re-entry programs actually end up saving money by lowering recidivism, she said–which is a big part of the reason Texas tried it. The current California program is actually less progressive than many other states, several of whom have halfway houses or work-release programs, she said, but said it was a start.

“The good news is that other states have done this and we can learn from them,” Petersilia said. “The bad news is we’re behind.”

According to a background paper produced by Corrections, over a third of California’s 173,000 prisoners will be released within three years. In practice, Petersilia said, the actual percentage could be far higher. In any case, she said, sooner or later “they are coming home.”

The re-entry facilities are a rare corrections program that appears to enjoy support from both parties. Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, R-Orange, is overseeing AB 900 implementation as chair of the Select Committee and Prison Construction and Operations. He’s holding hearings–in Sacramento next month, Orange County in November and Bakersfield in December–to get updates from local officials.

The re-entry facilities are even supported by some who are otherwise quite critical of AB 900. For instance, representatives for Taxpayers for Improving Public Safety (TIPS) filed a lawsuit in state Superior Court on August 8 to block AB 900. The suit claims the bond structure used to fund the prison expansion violates state law, something the administration denies. TIPS lobbyist Matt Gray was actually escorted out of a September 6 Schwarzenegger press conference about AB 900 for talking to the press.
But Gray’s main problem with the re-entry provision in the bill is that they don’t go far enough. He said he like to see a program housing more prisoners, for period of up to 18 months. He’d also like to see longer term drug treatment and job training.

“If they’re just going to have a microcosm of what they have now, it’s destined to fail,” said Gray.

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