Crime

How SLO County helps low-level offenders transition back into their lives

Probationers attend an AB109 post-release offender meeting at the San Luis Obispo County Probation Department.
Probationers attend an AB109 post-release offender meeting at the San Luis Obispo County Probation Department. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

When John Stafford was paroled from prison in 2012, he wound up standing alone in a parking lot off Los Osos Valley Road at 2 a.m., watching the Greyhound bus pull away.

In his hand, he clutched everything he owned — $200, a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation ID card and a small bag of clothes. There was no job, no apartment and a dwindling number of friends to turn to.

“The world had moved on without me,” Stafford recalled. “It was back to square one again.”

The situation was lonely but familiar; he’d been in the same spot five times in the past two decades. A little more than a year later, he had sunk back into alcoholism and was right back in Wasco State Prison after stealing a car.

“It’s incomprehensible to me how people are let out with absolutely no support and they’re expected to magically merge back into society,” he said. “You don’t have clothes, you’re almost completely unemployable and the things you got used to (in prison) don’t fly in the real world.”

Today, Stafford is back in San Luis Obispo after being released again, but this time it’s different. He is on what’s called post-release community supervision (PRCS), a new type of probation administered at the county level rather than by state parole officers.

The new system is the result of a 2011 court order requiring California to drastically reduce prison overcrowding. State lawmakers passed AB 109, or public safety realignment, that sends people convicted of certain nonviolent, nonserious and nonsexual crimes to serve their sentences in county jails and then to county probation departments after their release from prison.

Thanks to state funding — about $6.1 million in fiscal 2013-14 — SLO County officials have created programs and connected community agencies to deal with the AB 109 population, called “post-release offenders,” and crafted individualized case plans based on each person’s risk and needs.

One such program recently helped a newly released offender pay the security deposit on an apartment. Another offender was provided with a decent outfit to wear to a job interview, and a few more once she learned she got the job.

Those kinds of services, unheard of pre-2011, have had promising results: Since realignment, post-release offenders have a lower rate of reoffending while under supervision than the traditional probation population.

But that’s just on paper. The human results are seen in talking with the about 142 post-release offenders in the county, including Stafford, who recently shared their experiences with the new programs and how they differ from those they received while on parole — programs that did little to help them avoid returning to cells.

It was always the stick and never the carrot. ... This, with AB 109, is the first time I’ve seen a shade of gray in the criminal justice system.

John Stafford, construction manager and SLO County post-release offender

Stafford says he now has 34 months of sobriety and several jobs, including grounds manager at Sunny Acres sober living facility in San Luis Obispo, where he is directing the construction of a new 14-bed house for clients.

It was his own choice to finally kick the booze and drugs, he said, but the services he received through post-release community supervision programs allowed him to get his entire life back on track in the three months he’s been a free man.

“I’m engaged and happy inside and making choices to transfer back to society,” Stafford said. “My program’s working.”

Promising results

Of the 2,222 adults supervised by the San Luis Obispo County Probation Department as of June 30, about 6 percent were post-release offenders.

Given the differences between post-release supervision and traditional probation, the department formed a special unit of four deputies, a supervisor and clerical staff to manage the caseload.

This population comes to probation one of two ways. People who were already in prison for AB 109-eligible crimes when the law was passed are now placed on post-release community supervision upon their release. People convicted of those crimes since AB 109 became law serve straight time or split sentences in County Jail instead of prison. The split sentences normally entail a few years in custody, with the remainder of the sentence spent under mandatory supervision.

The types of supervision have different requirements.

As of June 30, a total of 504 released prison inmates had been returned to SLO County under PRCS. As of then, the local post-release offender population was about 85 percent male, with an average age of 36.

The number of those offenders peaked in December 2012 with 159 people and since then has steadily decreased, with a local caseload of 91 people last June. Mandatory supervision cases have grown slowly, from 10 people in September 2012 to 51 people in June, as courts began issuing County Jail sentences for AB 109-eligible crimes.

Drug and alcohol-related crimes account for the largest group of post-release offender cases, or about 45.8 percent. About 31 percent were convicted of crimes against persons, 19 percent committed property crimes and 4.2 percent were convicted of weapons crimes, according to the department’s 2014-15 Fiscal Year Statistical Report.

For probation officers, the best gauge of success is whether a person commits a new crime while under their supervision. In a recent assessment, the department found that in the combined fiscal years of 2012-15, about 36.8 percent of all post-release offenders reoffended under their supervision.

That overall figure is promising, officials say, compared to the traditional probation population, of which 44.4 percent committed a new crime while on probation in the 2014-15 fiscal year, according to department data. That population includes violent offenders.

The local recidivism rate also fares much better than the most recently calculated national recidivism rates. A 2014 U.S. Department of Justice report looked at state prisoners released on parole in 30 states in 2005 and found that nearly 68 percent were arrested for a new crime within three years and nearly 77 percent within five years.

“Community supervision has been shown to not only be a cost-effective alternative to prison,” said SLO County Chief Probation Officer Jim Salio, “but the recidivism numbers are showing real promise and I think speak also to the (services) we have available and the attention we can give offenders if they need it.”

Setbacks and second chances

Stafford’s gradual slide into substance abuse and his subsequent years spent mired in the prison system are not uncommon.

A sheriff’s deputy and police officer in Kern County in the late 1980s, Stafford was convicted for being under the influence while carrying a loaded service weapon, an offense that kicked off a string of stints in prisons across the state. Each time he was released, he wound up back on the street, where an arrest for petty theft would land him back in prison on a parole violation.

After serving his last prison term for stealing and crashing a Mercedes-Benz while on a bender in 2013, Stafford was released from California Correctional Institution near Tehachapi on Sept. 9 and returned to San Luis Obispo.

This time he found a very different reception.

“It was always the stick and never the carrot. Black and white. You screw up, you’re going to prison,” Stafford said. “This, with AB 109, is the first time I’ve seen a shade of gray in the criminal justice system.”

The system in and of itself has the potential to make people worse if it’s not applied correctly.

SLO County Chief Probation Officer Jim Salio

Within days of their release from prison, AB 109 inmates are required to report to a post-release offender meeting, known as the PROM, an orientation of sorts to begin their supervision on the right foot.

At a recent PROM, representatives from stakeholder agencies — the California Department of Rehabilitation, County Drug and Alcohol Services, Liberty Tattoo Removal, County Department of Mental Health, Community Action Partnership of SLO County and the American Job Center — stood before seven seated men and women, each of whom had been in jail or prison about 48 hours earlier.

The weekly event is essentially a one-stop shop. Janet Allenspach, executive director of Liberty Tattoo Removal, handed out applications for things such as free bus passes, birth control and brochures for services that help people cope with life out of custody.

Ralph Obenberger, re-entry employment coordinator for the Probation Department, told the group of the county’s services for job interview coaching, obtaining interviews and work clothes, money for school and acquiring free federal bonding.

“I’m here to help you guys move forward by helping you find employment,” Obenberger said. “I’ll be another set of eyes and ears for you.”

After the introductions, the group submitted to breathalyzer tests and urine screenings, and had their tattoos photographed. Each person then sat down for an interview with a probation officer. For some, it was the first meeting in a relationship vital to their freedom.

One man who served 40 days in County Jail for being caught drinking while on post-release community supervision met privately with Deputy Probation Officer Corman Roullo. Despite the man’s setback, the two discussed case management strategies, housing, health care, clothing, food and transportation.

He said he had a plan: Stay in a sober living home and begin a painting job he had lined up. Roullo suggested, based on the drinking sanction, that he stay in the sober living home for three months and away from his family and friends in Shandon.

“From an outside perspective, I think if you’re out of Shandon, you’re working, in three to four months we can talk about getting you moved back with your family,” Roullo said. “I want you to know you’re doing a good job — you just hit a bump in the road.”

36.4Average age of post-release offenders in SLO County, as of June 30

85.2 Percent of local post-release offenders who are men

91 Number under post-release community supervision from state prison

51 Number under court-ordered mandatory supervision from a sentence served in County Jail

Another post-release offender was visited by Roullo at his home the night he was released from jail. That man also was caught drinking, but Roullo made the gut call to spare him a return to jail, which would have reset the clock on the year he had left under supervision.

“Last night, we made contact with you while you were drinking, and you owned up to it,” Roullo said. “Because you were honest, I didn’t take you in. But if there are any future violations, you’re going to go in.”

The man was issued a “sanction,” or an amendment to his case plan. For the foreseeable future, he will meet with Roullo twice a week and submit to additional drug and alcohol screening.

“I didn’t want to arrest you in front of your kids. Last thing I want them to see is you get rolled up on and taken away,” Roullo said. “But if I call you, you have to come in right away.”

Customized supervision

Over the past decade, probation departments across the country have moved away from one-size-fits-all supervision to an evidence-based approach that allocates more resources to people at a higher risk of reoffending.

The risk assessment process is similar to signing up for life insurance; companies rate a customer’s risk for health-related issues based on a weighted index. In probation, the target of the risk is recidivism.

Data shows that while many low- to medium-low-risk probationers will be successful with little supervision or requirements, said SLO County Chief Deputy Probation Officer Robert Reyes, most high-risk offenders need immediate direction and boundaries to be successful.

“When we overwhelm them with too (many requirements) right off the bat, we’re setting them up to fail,” Reyes said.

Chief Probation Officer Salio said that applying high-risk supervision to low-risk people can do more harm than good.

“You can create more problems with the person than you solve through supervision,” Salio said. “The system in and of itself has the potential to make people worse if it’s not applied correctly.”

In the fiscal years 2012-15, nearly half of all post-release offenders who committed new crimes while on supervision were assessed as high-risk, according to department data, compared with 16 percent of the low-risk population.

Stafford, a low-medium-risk offender, recalled the bevy of services being thrown at him at his PROM as overwhelming and the meeting with his probation officer pretty intimidating. It was a far cry from parole.

“But the minute I started talking to someone, I noticed the difference right away,” he said. “My P.O. was going to help me succeed.”

Coming tomorrow: Post-release offenders rely on county services and their peers to stay sober and find a job, and probation officers hold them accountable with compliance checks.

Matt Fountain: 805-781-7909, @MattFountain1

Who SLO County Probation supervised, fiscal years 2012-15

2012-13: 2,320 adult probationers, 172 post-release offenders

2013-14: 2,260 adult probationers, 175 post-release offenders

2014-15: 2,080 adult probationers, 142 post-release offenders

SOURCE: SLO County Probation Department

Recidivism among local post-release offenders,

fiscal year 2014-15

Risk level

Cases closed

Number recidivated

Percent recidivated

High

221

107

48.4%

Medium-high

78

22

28.2%

Medium-low

40

12

30%

Low

25

4

16%

No score

49

7

14.3%

Total

413

152

36.8%

SOURCE: San Luis Obispo County Probation Department

Post-release offenders

Post-release community supervision: Prison inmates serving sentences for nonviolent, nonserious and nonsexual crimes before AB 109 was passed are released to post-release community supervision monitored by county probation departments.

Mandatory supervision: People convicted of AB 109-eligible crimes who serve straight or split sentences in county jail are released to mandatory supervision by a county probation department.

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