County embraces criminal justice reform
Born with a cleft palate, all Mike Biscovich wanted when he was young was to belong. But instead, his youth was filled with humiliation as students laughed at his deformity; and later with solitude, as they shunned him. It was a lonely time, that was, until he discovered drugs.
In drugs he found an escape, a form of comfort, a place to be. And as he immersed himself in that life, the more he says he came to believe he didn’t need other people. It became a vicious circle that would pit him against the world, throw him into a life of petty crime and eventually land him five jaunts in state prison.
Today the 46-year-old Cabrillo College student and volunteer at Friends Outside, a nonprofit organization that works with prisoners and the formerly incarcerated, is a different man. He is dedicated to change—to changing himself and the lives of others. He spends his days studying for an associate’s degree in human services, going to self-help meetings, and volunteering for AfterCare, a Friends Outside program that helps recently released inmates get on their feet and avoid being sent back to prison.
In a sense, you might say Biscovich is a man of his time and place, even if unwittingly. California is now embarking on the largest prison reform effort in the past 30 years and with its emphasis on alternative sentencing, reform and community involvement. Santa Cruz County is, in many ways, taking a lead in shaping what that might look like.
In May 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plata v. Brown that overcrowding in California prisons and the high violence, disease and death rates that accompanied it constituted cruel and unusual punishment. It ordered the state to reduce its prison population to no more than 110,000, meaning the state needed to shed more than 30,000 inmates. Since the mid-’90s the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has operated at more than 200 percent capacity, a product of 1970s “tough on crime” policies that increased the California prison population at a rate of 500 percent over the past 30 years—making California the state with the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the United States.
“Overcrowding has prevented the system from functioning at even a basic level, let alone actually rehabilitate anyone,” says Santa Cruz County Public Defender Larry Bigham. “In the last 10 years, the recidivism rate of released prisoners has been 70 percent—a complete failure.”
Faced with the option of releasing tens of thousands of prisoners or coming up with an alternative, and also faced with a massive budget deficit, the state legislature passed AB 109 shortly after the judgment. Dubbed the Public Safety Realignment Act, AB 109, which took effect Oct. 1, it transfers the onus of incarcerating individuals sentenced for low-level felonies from the state to counties. In other words, non-violent, non-sexual and non-serious offenders that previously would have been sentenced to terms in state prison will now serve their time in county jail.
Gov. Brown also argues the move will save the state hundreds of millions dollars in the long term. Currently, the CDCR is the second largest state agency and just this past week it was announced that potentially 26,000 CDCR workers could be laid off or terminated due to prison restructuring.
The realignment has been a source of trepidation for many California counties, all of which are fearful of overcrowding and many of which are planning to address the matter by constructing more jail space. However, Santa Cruz County officials and community justice organizations alike deem that approach a continuation of what exists and instead are embracing new possibilities the legislation presents.
“The realignment is an amazing opportunity to transform the justice system; to implement restorative justice programs and data-driven alternatives to incarceration,” says Santa Cruz County chief probation officer Scott McDonald, who also is head of the newly formed Community Corrections Partnership Committee—the body that will oversee the implementation of the bill locally and includes the Sheriff’s Department, District Attorney’s Office, Public Defender’s Office, Supreme Court Judges and multiple nonprofit organizations, among others. “Public safety is our main concern, but we know the current system has failed and we know there are alternatives to incarceration that have proven track records.”
As it stands, the county’s jails are at 125 percent capacity. However, recognizing that incarceration rarely is effective in solving the problem of criminal behavior—in fact it generally exasperates it—the CCPC has elected to compensate for the influx of new inmates by implementing a custody alternatives program rather than increase jail space. McDonald says the alternatives include electronic monitoring, work release programs, life skills and decision-making counseling, and substance abuse treatment. They will be used in lieu of county jail time for qualifying misdemeanor offenders, such as those convicted of crimes like property damage, petty theft, probation violations and some drug and alcohol offenses.
“The use of alternatives will be made on a case-by-case basis and be data-driven,” says McDonald, “and a lot of that will be determined by the judges.”
“Data-driven” is the key word, says UC Santa Cruz sociology professor Craig Haney, who testified as an expert witness in the Supreme Court hearing and helped found the Smart on Crime initiative, which focuses on getting the community involved in finding cost-efficient, evidence-based alternatives to incarceration.
It is a concept influenced by Santa Cruz County’s nationally renowned juvenile justice system, one of the main architects of which is McDonald. Santa Cruz County’s juvenile system has been groundbreaking in its approach to combating youth crime: by focusing on programs that emphasize rehabilitation and restorative justice, the county has reduced the juvenile detention rate by approximately 20 percent in the past two years.
“The idea now is to use the juvenile program as a model for the adult population,” says Haney. A key component of the juvenile system has been its recognition that problems don’t necessarily reside only in the juvenile, but are often related to family, neighborhood and school issues. The approach has been to analyze each case individually and attempt to identify and address the root problems causing criminal behavior.
Another key component in the data-driven approach is for the effectiveness of alternatives to incarceration to be continuously evaluated. “If a particular approach is not working, it is axed, if it is working, it is continued,” says Haney. Likewise, new alternatives will also be looked into, ideally, with input from the community.
Nonprofit organizations such as Barrios Unidos and Friends Outside that are dedicated to reforming the justice system are working closely with the CCPC. Biscovich, for example, not only helps recently released inmates access various resources available to them, but also works in the warrant prevention program to keep people from going back to jail for probation and parole violations.
“If someone misses a probation appointment, for example, I go to their house and tell them that if they go in today a warrant won’t be issued,” he says. “I’ve been where they are and I know it is a process to move forward. For me, the resources that Friends Outside directed me to made all the difference. I’m trying to use my experience to try to help others stay out of jail.”
Likewise, the CCPC is currently forming work groups in which community members are encouraged to participate. These groups will play an active role in determining how best the county can accomplish long-term criminal justice reform and move away from the “war on crime” model that led the state to the problem it has now.
Like Biscovich, many current and recently released prisoners suffer from underlying, though not irresolvable, problems such as addiction and mental illness that fuel criminal behavior. What AB 109 does, Bigham—who has long been an advocate for justice system reform—says, is it gives local municipalities the responsibility instead of the state to deal with our own people. “And let’s be clear about who these people are—they come from our families, our schools, our churches, our community,” he says. “They are our citizens.”Photo: Keana Parker
The next Smart on Crime workshop will be at 7 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 7 at First Congregational Church, 900 High St. in Santa Cruz.