County probation officers take on more supervision of parolees
As state officials continue to grapple with overcrowded prisons, much of the burden continues to be pushed onto local governments with varying success.
In October 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 109, also known as realignment, which laid out steps for reducing the state’s severely overcrowded prisons to comply with federal mandates. At the time the law went into effect, there were more than 143,000 inmates in state prisons—nearly twice the facilities’ capacity.
The latest change as part of the unfolding realignment plan has to do with parole revocation, a process previously handled by the state Board of Parole Hearings. As of July 1, however, local courts are now considered the sole parole authority and parole violation hearings will be heard at the local level.
The Santa Cruz County District Attorney’s Office is now tasked with prosecuting the violations and making determinations to the court.
“We’re managing the best we can with the limited resources the District Attorney’s Office has,” says Jeff Rosell, deputy district attorney for Santa Cruz County. “With any new system, you’re working the kinks out.”
As part of these changes, county probation departments now have enhanced authority when it comes to determining the appropriate response to alleged parole violations by those they oversee, according to William Penny, director of the Santa Cruz County Probation Department’s adult division.
Authorized sanctions for such violations include what is called “flash incarceration,” in which an individual can be held in a county jail for up to 10 days. Previously the courts had to be involved with all parole violation cases, but realignment now gives probation departments a larger share of the responsibility.
“Flash incarceration is kind of like an intermediate sanction that’s under the probation department’s jurisdiction—not the court’s,” says Jay Snyder, a deputy probation officer with the county. “It’s sort of a ‘time out.’”
This only applies to those serving what’s called post-release community supervision (PRCS), in which probation officers rather than state parole agents oversee some individuals released from state prison. Individuals who fit this criteria are typically low-level offenders, whose most recent felony conviction was deemed “triple non”—non-serious, non-violent and non-sexual.
Statewide, counties have assumed responsibility for supervising some 60,000 offenders from 33 California prisons who qualified for PRCS after AB 109 went into effect. Local offices have no say over who is released on PRCS, with all discretion left up to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Local governments, however, have a vested interest in ensuring individuals on PRCS succeed, and each county in the state is working hard to accomplish this. Here in Santa Cruz County, county probation officials established a special group within the department to focus specifically on the PRCS population. That population actually makes up a relatively small percentage of people the probation department supervises—less than 10 percent of the 2,500 supervisees are on PRCS, Penny says. Three officers are specifically devoted to overseeing those individuals, at an average caseload of 35 supervisees per officer.
A major part of the effort is establishing contact with these individuals before they are actually released from prison. That role goes to Yolanda James-Sevilla, a supervising deputy probation officer with the county. She says she begins by reviewing a packet on the soon-to-be-released prisoner, and then reaches out to the offender’s counselor at the prison.
From there, she typically gets in touch with the inmate personally and begins determining that individual’s needs. She sets about ensuring the individual will have housing, drug treatment and other services immediately upon being released from prison.
The Public Policy Institute of California has found that the development of support mechanisms—including the formulation of plans for providing drug treatment, mental healthcare, housing, education and other services—has been progressing at a reasonable pace since realignment was implemented.
At first James-Sevilla tried to meet with each individual in person prior to their release but logistically that proved impossible, so most of this pre-release contact is done by phone.
When possible, she also reaches out to family members to ensure the proper infrastructure is in place.
“We want them to really understand the process and what services are available to them,” and to get them the services they need immediately, James-Sevilla says of those she supervises.
While housing hasn’t been as much of an issue as she anticipated, it’s definitely still a major concern. James-Sevilla works to guarantee all parolees under her jurisdiction will have a roof over their head immediately upon release, whether it is with family or at a local shelter.
Typically, inmates leaving state prison for PRCS are given a bus ticket and $200, and directed to travel to their place of residence—usually the last place they lived outside of prison. They must report to the county probation department within a specified amount of time. So far, county officials say, most are doing so.
“It’s been phenomenal to see the number of people reporting to probation right away,” Penny says. “Of the first 100 people released on post-release community supervision, there have only been a couple of people who didn’t show up [to probation].”
James-Sevilla is hoping to begin working with prisons to get offenders transported to facilities closer to Santa Cruz County where a probation officer could then pick them up to bring them back here.
The number of new cases of people on PRCS is expected to decline as fewer low-level offenders remain to be released from state prison. Most have a three-year term of supervision, though that term will end at one year if an offender has no violations and possibly even sooner than that.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation projects statewide totals of the number of individuals being released on PRCS each month to drop down to 1,377 in September 2013 from a high of 3,582 in October 2011, the first month of realignment. At the county level, nine people were released on PRCS that first month, with a projected four to be released this September.
Those released on PRCS run the gamut in terms of how long they’ve been in prison. For some, it could have been as short as 10 months. For others, it might be as long as 10 years. Spending a decade behind bars leaves most ill prepared for the outside world, and many of these longer-term offenders require higher levels of housing, vocational and educational services.
Probation departments statewide use what’s called evidence-based supervision, in which levels of supervision are determined based on assessing each individual’s needs and history. Those deemed to be at the highest risk of re-offending are contacted and drug tested more often, for example.
Realignment has allowed county probation departments to begin contracting directly with service providers. Santa Cruz County’s Community Corrections Partnership, which oversees the realignment funds provided by the state, has set aside close to $1.5 million to contract with nonprofit and government agencies. The largest share of that goes to substance abuse treatment, including paying rent at sober living environments.
The changes have also made for a stronger alliance between the probation department and law enforcement, according to Penny. “It’s a positive thing in terms of sharing information and collaborating,” he says.
That doesn’t mean violations aren’t occurring, however. “This population—they’re drug offenders and property offenders,” he says. “They have a high rate of recidivism and a high rate of violations.”
Still, he stresses the significance of establishing a positive rapport with parolees from the get-go.
“Every time you get them to come in, they’re more likely to come in the next time,” Penny says. “If we make a 10-15 percent difference [in recidivism], that’s what we’re looking for.”