Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series on low-level offenders now under the supervision of the San Luis Obispo County Probation Department following the 2011 passage of AB 109, California’s state prison realignment law.
When state lawmakers passed Assembly Bill 109 in 2011, the goal was to reduce severe overcrowding in California’s prisons by sentencing nonviolent low-level offenders to county jails and sending nonviolent prison parolees to county probation departments for post-release supervision.
To sweeten the deal, counties got state funding to handle the influx. In San Luis Obispo County, millions of dollars have been spent to create programs to help the offenders stay on track once they are released.
The individualized programs help offenders navigate the rough waters of finding housing, transportation, counseling for substance abuse or mental health issues, and steady work.
But post-release offenders are far from coddled. There are rules to follow, meetings to attend and goals to meet. Most will be regularly visited by their probation officers, who can show up at their homes, their jobs or anywhere else, dressed in full tactical gear.
For John Stafford, 51, the abundance of services was in stark contrast to his previous experiences on parole for a string of low-level crimes fueled by drugs and alcohol. This time, he said, “I noticed the difference right away. My P.O. was going to help me succeed.”
‘More to lose’
Once post-release offenders begin their supervision, most are required to attend regular group counseling sessions, many of which are related to substance abuse treatment.
Alcohol and drug abuse have been identified as high-risk factors in more than half of the people on post-release community supervision (PRCS) and 33 percent of those under mandatory supervision, according to the county Probation Department.
On a recent Friday evening, about 12 people on post-release supervision — some had gotten out of prison just a few weeks prior — met for a “Power of Addiction” meeting at the San Luis Obispo County Drug and Alcohol Services building in San Luis Obispo.
The group had become tight over the weeks and months they got to know each other. Stafford is one of the more outspoken members of the group.
“When I drink, I drink to get drunk. It’s made a mockery out of everything,” Stafford said. “I know if I drink again, it’s either death or life in prison.”
Many of the stories shared around the circle were similar.
“My addiction has killed and stolen everything I ever loved,” another client said. “It keeps you sick, keeps you dead.”
Group members credited county services available thanks to AB 109 funding for helping them get through those pivotal first days and weeks out of custody.
“I was so scared. I had no job, but the program paid for the first three months (at a sober living home). That way my only care is staying sober. It gave me a buffer,” one said.
One young woman said she was recently released from a one-year stay in County Jail for drug-related crimes after being in and out of custody for years, she said.
“On probation before, there were no services available to me. I was supposed to just stop using on my own,” she said.
Under her PRCS program, the woman received help drafting her résumé, a set of clothes for a job interview, and for the first time in her life, she said, a California ID. “And I just got a job today!” she exclaimed, to a hearty applause from the group. “That support was how I got it done.”
“The more you start building this stuff — the driver’s license, the job, the apartment — the more you have to lose,” SLO County Drug and Alcohol Services Program Supervisor Clark Guest told the group. “It makes you hesitate and take a step back before making a bad decision.”
The largest complaint from post-release offenders who talked with The Tribune for this story was embarrassment caused by armed probation officers in tactical gear knocking on their doors, which can stress a fragile living situation, they said.
During an Oct. 7 probation check, Assistant Chief Probation Officer Robert Reyes, Supervising Deputy Probation Officer Dennis Johnson, and Deputy Probation Officers Corman Roullo and Isidro Soto visited the homes of four post-release offenders, one of whom had been ducking Roullo all week.
Reyes said probation officers have historically struggled with their identity, acting as a hybrid social worker-police officer. The gear and physical presence in the community is necessary to keep officers safe, Reyes said, but it doesn’t define who they are.
“There’s always going to be some resistance to the way we come to their house. But this is the way you’re held accountable for whatever it is you did,” Reyes said. “It is intrusive, no doubt about it.”
“I tell them my job is to meet with them so we can tell the judge they’re doing well and have bragging rights to the judge,” Johnson said. “But we try to go out with a lighter spirit to not look like it’s a siege on the neighborhood.”
Each probation officer in the post-release unit has an average caseload of about 50 people and conducts a minimum of two in-person meetings per month, at least one of which is a surprise check in the community.
If a person on PRCS goes one full year without a sanction that requires a jail stay, they’re discharged. But if a disciplinary action results in the person being taken into custody, their supervision is reset to 365 days. Terms for people on mandatory supervision are on a case-by-case basis, set by the courts.
The officers stopped at a Gryphon Society sober living home in Atascadero, where they contacted the manager and asked about the progress of a recently released jail inmate. At the next stop, a Paso Robles apartment complex, children playing in the courtyard ran up to the officers, asking for the department stickers officers usually hand out as part of a community outreach effort. Two young girls ran up to take a selfie next to Johnson’s car.
At Oak Park Community Apartments, Roullo locates Hector, a man in his late 20s who was released from a Texas prison days ago. It was his first interaction with local probation, and he had yet to attend a post-release offender meeting, or PROM, that links people recently released from custody to the different local services and programs available under AB 109.
Hector stepped out, was patted down, then turned and leaned against the wall casually. Roullo welcomed him back to California and explained the process moving forward.
Under the terms of his supervision, Hector is not required to live in a sober living facility and was being provided a place to stay by members of his church. A medium- to low-risk offender, Hector also had a job lined up and was looking forward to contributing toward his friends’ rent before finding his own place.
The interaction was a good one, Roullo later said, and likely set the tone for a positive relationship between the two for the time they’ll have to interact with each other.
“I think it’s important what we’re doing because these people, they’re not people from outside the county. They were born here; they will always be here,” Reyes said later as the group debriefed. “Their success is a success for the community.”
Nobody was taken into custody during the checks.
‘Sky hasn’t fallen’
The nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California concluded in a September report that realignment has markedly decreased the state’s overall reliance on incarceration. It found that about 18,000 offenders who in past years would have been in either prison or jail had not served time behind bars.
That increased “street time” among former prison inmates inspired grave safety concerns from residents and even law enforcement officials despite support for realignment from the state sheriffs’ union and other police associations. But experts say the streets are no less safe, statistically speaking, than in 2010, and despite a roughly 2.6 percent increase in aggravated assaults in 2014, violent crime continues its longstanding decline in California.
Ghandnoosh said the state’s policy of leaving services up to local agencies has led to a common-sense approach toward incarceration and post-release supervision that reflects in a drop in serious crime.
Though the state’s violent crime rate increased slightly in 2012, it dropped by 6.4 percent in 2013 to a 46-year low, according to the PPIC report. Although property crimes, namely vehicle thefts, have increased slightly, both property and violent crime rates are now below 2011 levels and have reached historic lows, the report reads.
San Luis Obispo County data show that arrests for violent crime have generally decreased since 2005. However, those crimes began to rise following a 10-year low in 2008 and peaked in 2012, the first year of realignment. Violent crime arrests dropped dramatically in 2013 but rose slightly last year.
Those figures don’t include property crimes, which, similar to statewide figures, have increased in recent years. Last year’s increase in violent arrests were largely due to an increase in aggravated assaults, local officials say. There is no data to attribute these crimes to the post-release offender community, and data show this group has reoffended less than most probationers.
“The streets didn’t run red with blood,” San Luis Obispo County Chief Probation Officer Jim Salio said. “Community supervision has proven to be a cost-effective alternative to prison.”
Today, John Stafford lives and works as grounds manager at the Sunny Acres sober living facility on the outskirts of San Luis Obispo. His days are booked solid with jobs and attending group meetings, and he’s heading the construction of a 14-bedroom living and meeting quarters on the ranch, a project more than a decade in the making, while helping others deal with addiction.
“I’m lucky, probably a lot luckier than many others, because at this point I don’t crave (drugs), and to go back now would be suicide,” Stafford said on a recent afternoon as he showed off work he’s completed on the ranch’s upcoming greywater system.
Given the short amount of time he’s been out of prison, he’s cautiously optimistic. He said the assistance he’s received in his three months of county supervision has helped him hit the ground running, and his support from fellow clients at Sunny Acres has added to that network.
But like others who’ve committed to staying out of prison, Stafford said the greatest difference this time around is his own attitude.
“There’s a point you just get sick of living like that,” he said. “I’ve made the personal decision regardless of AB 109 that the main goal is to have a happy, productive life.”
Prison inmates who served sentences for nonviolent, nonserious, and nonsexual crimes and are released to post-release community supervision (PRCS) by county probation departments
People convicted of AB 109-eligible crimes who serve straight or split sentences in county jail and are placed under local mandatory supervision by a county probation department upon release
Services and programs available to post-release offenders
- Employment search and placement, résumé drafting, interview coaching
- License and bonding renewal
- Transportation assistance, such as bus passes
- Orientation and mobility services for the physically disabled
- Technical assistance for self-employment
- Professional clothing and basic equipment for work and interviews
- Cellphone access
- Drug and alcohol treatment
- Behavioral and anger management treatment programs
- Gang and anti-social tattoo removal
- Housing, rent and security deposit assistance
- Day care
- Reproductive care
- STD/HIV/Hepatitis C screening
- ID card program
- Breaking Bread*: a vocational apprenticeship with Breaking Bread Bakery
- Carpentry as a Career*: vocational workshop provided by Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters
- Welding*: an apprenticeship training program at Cuesta College provided by the Plumbers and Pipefitting Local Union No. 403
- Adverse Childhood Experiences Overcomers*: Six-week faith-based workshop exploring the effects of trauma, provided by Captive Hearts
- Books Behind Bars*: a one-to-one book exchange provided by the San Luis Obispo County Library
Waiting lists and other conditions apply for some services because of availability and individual case management plans
* New programs implemented 2014-15
Violent crime in San Luis Obispo County, 2005-2014
Includes individual arrests for homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault from SLO County Sheriff’s Office, and the Arroyo Grande, Atascadero, Grover Beach, Morro Bay, Paso Robles, Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo police departments.
No. of violent crime arrests
Violent crime in California, 2005-2014
Includes individual reports of homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault from all California law enforcement agencies.
No. of violent incidents