California Parole System
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SPENCER MICHELS: Each year, California releases 125,000 inmates from prison, and unlike most other states, all but a few go on parole. Two-thirds of them return to prison as parole violators. The parole system has been under attack for years as ineffective and a waste of billions. Critics have charged the state re-incarcerates far too many parolees.
MAN: Ronnie K. Constant. I’m k90824.
SPENCER MICHELS: But several recent developments appear to be forcing change on the system. Last fall, the state’s watchdog Little Hoover Commission called for major reforms after concluding parole is a massive failure helping neither the parolees nor the community. Executive director James Mayer says it wastes more than a billion dollars a year.
JAMES MAYER: Some of these inmates are actually paroled, violated, return to prison, paroled, violated and returned to prison several times within a year. This is an enormously costly and not very effective system.
SPENCER MICHELS: On the national level, the Washington-based Urban Institute found California parole practices much worse than in other states. Jeremy Travis, a senior fellow and former Clinton administration official, said a fifth of all parolees nationwide are from California.
JEREMY TRAVIS: While in the national story over the last 20 years, the number of parole revocations has increased about six-fold. In California the number of parole revocations has increased 30-fold. So California is doing something that is just off the charts. California is even more punitive than the most punitive state in the country.
SPENCER MICHELS: As California parole agents, Joe Edwards and Everett Brooks are in the center of the controversy. They spend part of their day making sure their parolees comply with the terms of their parole, like reporting in and not using drugs or alcohol. How the agents handle violations is beginning to change.
JOE EDWARDS: What the problem is, is that in the past we were so overworked that we tended to take the easy way out and place people back into custody.
SPENCER MICHELS: Now however, spurred on by lawsuits, a high failure rate among parolees, criticism from the Little Hoover Commission, and the high cost of re-incarceration, the philosophy appears to be shifting in favor of keeping non-violent parolees on the streets.
EVERETT BROOKS: Say if a guy just gives us a dirty test for use of cocaine, if he’s an addict, we try to assist and help him by placing him in some kind of intervention program for drugs.
SPENCER MICHELS: The problem of readjusting begins inside prisons, where 70 percent of the inmates are in for parole violations. This group is nearing release.
DONALD LAURY: Everybody just sitting here smoking and chopping it up, talking about the streets, and it’s, like, you don’t learn nothing. When you get out on the streets, it’s just make you even madder, and why you’re out there. So all you know how to do is go back to violence or sell drugs.
INMATE: Comfort zone.
DONALD LAURY: Yeah, go back to your old comfort zone.
SPENCER MICHELS: Prisons offer some education classes and vocational training, and some prisons, like San Quentin, even have prerelease instruction.
TEACHER: Do you think you’re here because of mistakes, or you’re here to learn a lesson?
SPENCER MICHELS: But this three-week class is voluntary, and only a fraction of the 200 inmates paroled each week sign up. Sessions focus on Social Security, jobs, housing and attitude.
TEACHER: Most people fail when they get out of prison because they do not have a plan.
SPENCER MICHELS: Once an inmate is released, he is given $200 and told to report to his parole agent immediately.
SPOKESMAN: You catch the bus, by the time you even get where you’re going, you’re down to $150. By the time you even see your parole officer you have no money in your pocket.
MAN: I just left. I absconded, because it wasn’t working for me. My parole officer was telling me I got to call him every day, which I didn’t have money to be calling every day.
SPENCER MICHELS: For violating parole, he was sent back to San Quentin, in accordance with state policy. Don Specter, director of the non-profit Prison Law Office, claims that practice is a response to politicians not wanting to look soft on crime.
DON SPECTER: The emphasis has been on punishment, it has been on arrests, it has been on incarceration. There have been very few funds for social programs for reintegrating prisoners into the community.
SPENCER MICHELS: Specter and others sued the California Department of Corrections nearly a decade ago, claiming the process of arresting and incarcerating parolees was unfair and unconstitutional since it deprived them of due process.
DON SPECTER: Prisoners were arrested, thrown in jail, moved to a prison, not given any charge, written notice of the charges. They languished in prison for months without ever seeing a judge or a hearing officer or anything.
SPENCER MICHELS: Even the deputy director for parole in the department of corrections, Rick Rimmer, admits the process was bad business.
RICK RIMMER: We experienced some major traffic jams.
SPENCER MICHELS: Once a parolee is returned to prison, even for a violation like drunken driving, he often has to wait up to five months for a revocation of parole hearing like this.
SPOKESPERSON: Was he walking alright?
SPOKESPERSON: Was he slurring his words?
OFFICER: Slurring his speech, unsteady on his feet, staggered. Couldn’t stand still in one place.
SPENCER MICHELS: Attorneys at the prison law office argued that delayed hearings were unjust, and they also charged that parolees often didn’t have legal counsel. The class-action case was finally settled this winter, bringing further changes to the parole system. The court ordered a speedup in the time between arrest and sentencing, more prerelease classes in prison, and lawyers provided for parolees brought back. Previous administrations had resisted changes in the parole system, but on the day after governor Arnold Schwarzenegger took office, the state signed the court settlement.
SPOKESMAN: All students back to school.
SPENCER MICHELS: The Department of Corrections has recently begun to change the parole system. There will be more prerelease education and vocational training for prisoners. Rather than imposing prison time for drug parole violations, there’s now an emphasis on drug abuse programs. And there will be an increase in the use of electronic monitoring devices currently worn by only a few parolees.
ARNOLD FITT: He stating that he’s living at a certain residence and we can’t find him there. We can say, "okay, we’re going to place you on electronic monitoring and you will be at this residence during these certain times."
SPENCER MICHELS: Instead of sending him back to prison?
SPOKESMAN: Instead of sending him back to prison.
SPENCER MICHELS: Does that make sense to you, Mr. Singleton?
SINGLETON: It does make sense. Yeah, better than going to jail. Anything is better than going to jail.
SPENCER MICHELS: Parole agent Edwards says there’s a new emphasis on connecting parolees with community services.
JOE EDWARDS: We’ll do whatever it takes. Whatever a person asks us to do, we’ll go out and do it for them. But if they don’t ask or if they do not want… they don’t want the help, it’s really hard to help anybody who doesn’t want it.
SPOKESMAN: Hey Randall, how you doing?
SPENCER MICHELS: After one trip back to prison, parolee Randall Strickland wanted help, and got it.
SPOKESMAN: You get off parole next week.
RANDALL STRICKLAND: Yes I do.
SPENCER MICHELS: Parole agents referred him to a religious fellowship group, which has helped him stay out of trouble.
RANDALL STRICKLAND: Prison is full of rules and regulations. For ten years I had people telling me when to eat, when to shower, where to sleep and everything, and I think that the transition of getting back into society without some rules, without some guidelines, and without some help would have been kind of tough. I’ve had… I’ve heard horror stories about agents who just wanted to violate you and send you back to prison. It hasn’t been my experience.
SPOKESPERSON: Print your name…
SPENCER MICHELS: Within a week of their release from prison, parolees in Oakland must attend a two-hour meeting to hear about programs that could help them find housing, jobs, or benefits. These sessions are a sign change is in the air after decades of inertia.
SPOKESMAN: Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
SPENCER MICHELS: One reason cited is Schwarzenegger’s goal of cutting the budget. The governor’s recently-released budget predicts a savings of $85 million by not sending some parolees back to prison. Making those changes will be a tough challenge for corrections officials.
RICK RIMMER: We can do it. There are existing resources that we will be tapping locally. In 2003 we have already reduced revocations by about 10,000 in this state.
SPENCER MICHELS: The new governor’s apparent acceptance of change and the prospects of fewer parolees in prison has heartened longtime critics like don specter.
DON SPECTER: I think it’s a Nixon goes to China issue. The Republicans, unlike Gray Davis, don’t believe that they had the political fallout that will come if something goes wrong that a Democrat would.
SPENCER MICHELS: With California’s prison population near an all- time high, implementing changes in parole is taking longer than officials had hoped. Despite that, Californians, including the prisoners themselves, are anticipating the eventual overhaul of a long- broken system.