There is a notion that has been circulating that if convicted felons spent less time incarcerated than their required sentences, then they would be quick to commit further crimes upon release. Truth be told, it’s a misconception, at least when it comes to lockup in Ventura County jail. According to a recent one-of-a-kind survey by the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, recidivism upon “early” release is negligible, if mentionable at all.
The idea of less time, more crime, is nothing new, but it has been serving as a scapegoat for alleged spikes in criminal activity across the state of California after something called realignment — the shift in housing certain newly convicted inmates to county jail rather than prison so as to reduce overcrowding, with all jail inmates consequently serving less time than their specified sentences with good behavior — went into effect in October 2011. On the local level, one year ago, almost to the day, Ventura City Councilman Neal Andrews said the same thing, stating, “Crime has been rising, primarily in connection with the rise of poverty during the prolonged recession and the state’s ‘realignment’ of prisoners, which has involved a significant number being released from jail early, only to go back to their criminal activity.” (“A real competition,” VCReporter, 10/10/13) He is among many lawmakers and law enforcement officials who have blamed realignment for a perceived acceleration in crime; but it’s just not true, on various levels, practically speaking.
In the survey conducted by the Sheriff’s Department, which oversees the county jail, officials looked at offenders (4,091) released from Sept. 2, 2012, to Aug. 21, 2013, after serving half their sentences under the new realignment standards rather than the old standard of two-thirds; and 1,675 inmates out on accelerated release, which is 10 percent of their time off plus serving half-time. Officials found that the recidivism rate (conviction of a crime, not just an arrest), specifically during the time between their actual release dates under realignment and the later date when they would have been released before the implementation of realignment was 4.3 percent; and for those on accelerated release, it was 12.2 percent. For both groups of offenders released during that time period, the recidivism rate was 6.5 percent. Typically when referring to recidivism rates those numbers range between 50 percent and 70 percent.
Less time doesn’t equal more crime?
It’s difficult actually to pinpoint reasons why these inmates aren’t immediately reoffending. Perhaps it’s because probation (supervision of offenders released from county jail) is much more in your face these days, because probation officers’ caseloads are notably lower than those of parole officers (who supervise offenders released from state prison), and probationers are supervised more often; or perhaps it’s because services offered to inmates in jail now are evidence-based programs, i.e., they have actually worked to lower recidivism elsewhere, rather than “this might work” or “go with your gut” philosophies, which had been the prior approach. (Recidivism as defined by the Board of State and Community Corrections is the conviction of a new crime committed within three years of placement on supervision for a previous criminal conviction.)
Or maybe it’s because lockup in county jail is no cakewalk — more on all of this later. The simple fact is, people are complicated, come from various backgrounds and have various reasons for committing crimes. And in talking to multiple law enforcement officials from jail to prison and from probation to parole, they all say the same thing: “There are just too many variables” to consider and respond conclusively. There is one thing, however, that is conclusive: Blaming realignment alone for any significant increase in crime is not supported by evidence. In fact, crime is lower now than it has been in decades, especially when it comes to violence.
The California Department of Justice released crime statistics showing that the murder rate in 2013 was lower than it had been in 20 years, at 4.6 killings per 100,000 California residents, an 8 percent decrease from 2012 and a 64 percent decrease from 1993. The violent crime rate also dropped: 397 per 100,000 Californians, a 7 percent decrease from 2012 and 64 percent drop from 1992. Further, property crime dropped nearly 4 percent from 2012 to 2013. (The Public Policy Institute of California Crime Trends survey showed there was an increase in property crime in correlation with realignment in 2012 by 7.6 percent. In 2011, however, property crime hit a 50-year low, falling 63 percent over the last 30 years.)
Realignment came to be after the California Supreme Court ruled that conditions resulting from overcrowding in the state prison system constituted cruel and unusual punishment and that if the state didn’t address the issue inmates would have to be released early. Gov. Jerry Brown’s solution, at least in part, was to have nonserious, nonviolent, nonsex offenders serve their sentences in county jail rather than prison.
To prevent the possibility of subsequent overcrowding in the jails, all offenders sentenced to jail would only serve half of their sentences as the statutes dictated and, in some instances, some could and would be released at an accelerated rate should the jails surpass their maximum population capacity, known as accelerated release. Accelerated release would apply to lower-level offenders. To put things in perspective, however, inmates who served time in prison for the same crimes they now serve in jail could serve half their time for good behavior, and some might only serve 35 percent of their time doing work programs while in custody. Others are required to serve no less than 85 percent of their time; still others will never get out of prison.
“Realignment did extend day-for-day credits to jail inmates, which was previously only available to state prison inmates,” wrote Joe Orlando, of communications for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), in an email. “This was done because, had they not extended those credits, many jail inmates would be serving longer sentences than prison inmates.”
When it comes to supervision upon release, nonserious, nonviolent, nonsex offenders would be supervised by probation rather than parole. This applies to convicts who were incarcerated in prison at the time of realignment.
Realignment brought with it major shifts that impacted not only jail employees and probation officers but also the inmates themselves. While the changes had both negative and positive consequences, it still remains to be seen whether the impact of realignment has caused, as many have claimed, and the related ruckus about it, more crime.
Inside the county jail
In Ventura County, there are two jails, one at the government center on Victoria Avenue, the other on Todd Road in Santa Paula. Men are housed at both facilities, with a maximum population of 1,450, and women are housed at Todd Road, maximum capacity of 200. According to Cmdr. Rick Barrios of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, county jails were never supposed to house convicted inmates longer than one year, and typically only low-level offenders — misdemeanor convictions, DUI perpetrators, nonviolent types, etc. Convicted felons with terms longer than a year were sent to prison where more services were available and the infrastructure was designed for extended incarceration. But that has shifted dramatically in the face of realignment.
“We have much more violent, sophisticated offenders [now],” Barrios said. “Our population is 84 percent felons,” stating further that before realignment it was about 10 percent less.
Offenders now serving time in jail rather than prison — also known as 1170 offenders, referencing the section of the Penal Code for nonserious, nonviolent, nonsex offenses that includes hundreds of crimes — bring a new element. Many 1170 offenders have already spent hard time in prison and bring to jail what they learned in prison, skills like drug smuggling and making “pruno” (an alcoholic drink made from fermented fruit) in toilets. These offenders are also more violent toward each other, Barrios said, especially with the 50 or so different gangs housed under one roof where half the population is gang-affiliated.
Barrios spoke of the proverbial insane chess game of keeping inmates from hurting each other due to their gang ties. And it’s more complicated than just keeping rival gang members apart. In one instance, two Mexican Mafia members were housed together, the thought being that they wouldn’t fight their own. Instead, one beat the other almost to death. Barrios also said violence against guards has also increased, with assaults on staff up 30 percent. In one instance, an inmate attacked a guard just to increase the severity of his offense in hopes of being transferred to prison rather than serving time in jail.
Realignment also brought a sudden jump in the daily population.
“We are constantly going over it,” Barrios said. To reduce overcrowding and to keep the population at capacity, lower-level offenders who have served most of their sentence are getting out under accelerated release. For instance, if an inmate who meets the criteria for accelerated release is sentenced to 120 days, he or she will only serve 60 days minus 12 days, for a total of 48 days.
Capt. Rob Davidson, K-9 unit manager and detention administrator for the Sheriff’s Department, remarked that there is also an impact on the community when it comes to misdemeanor offenses, that those who once spent time in jail for misdemeanor offenses, such as trespassing, vandalism and petty theft, now generally only get a fine without any jail time, which may not be much of a deterrent. Recidivism rates for such offenders were not immediately available.
The positive impacts
Despite the harsh change for county jail staff, there are a few positive ones, specifically funding that caused a ripple effect in how the county manages its inmates.
Realignment provided funding to all 58 counties. Ventura County received $6.5 million in fiscal year 2011-2012 to implement realignment. In fiscal year 2012-2013 that amount was $15.5 million, and $18.1 million in fiscal year 2013-2014. This yearly funding is permanent and is constitutionally protected after the passage of Proposition 30 in 2012, according to Orlando with CDCR.
And where there is money, good things can happen. Just ask Cecil Argue, program manager of inmate services for the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department.
Argue came to work for the Sheriff’s Department in February 2012 with a 24-year background in corrections and probation. Argue brought with him experience in using “evidence-based programs,” a term used regularly with the implementation of realignment and the effort to reduce recidivism. His focus is primarily on the criminal mindset and changing it.
“Some looked at realignment as a challenge,” he said. “I saw an opportunity.”
With funding from the state, classrooms for implementing longstanding programs were updated, for GED preparation and testing, vocational training, including computer skills and food safety certification for food handling. But these programs were primarily designed for short-term inmates. Argue implemented a tried-and-true methodology called cognitive behavior restructuring programming, i.e., teaching offenders to think and behave more pro-socially.
“A lot of their situations are based on thinking errors,” Argue said. “We want to change their thinking errors and get them thinking about their situations differently.”
This new methodology brought a clinically based drug program with an actual clinician and moral reconation therapy, which seeks to decrease recidivism among juvenile and adult criminal offenders by increasing moral reasoning and addressing ego, social, moral and positive behavioral growth.
In the last two years, over 100 have gone through the therapy program. While Argue did not have the recidivism rate specific to those who went through the programs — they are voluntary — one female inmate currently housed at Todd Road praised the programs.
Carla, which is not her real name as she asked to remain anonymous, has been in and out of jail and prison on drug charges for many years, this time for heroin. She enrolled in the program and had nothing but good things to say.
“I feel like I will be better prepared,” Carla said. “I’m glad I’m here; I’m not ready to leave yet.”
She looked back at her youth and her time spent incarcerated and admitted she feels that growing older has impacted her perspective and desire to change, but she went so far as to say, “God put me here,” when referencing the life skills she was learning in jail.
Further, not only has the funding resulted in better programming inside the jail walls, but more staff has been hired for both inmates in custody and those on release. For Chris Modica, who has worked for the Ventura County Probation Agency both before realignment and since it was instated, plus four years working for the state parole division in between, the differences between probation and parole are really night and day . The most important fact it seemed to Modica, who was just promoted to supervising deputy probation officer from senior probation officer assigned to the post-release unit, was the caseloads.
“When I left probation, I had a high-risk case load,” Modica said. “I supervised those who were on the edge of going to prison; those caseloads were capped at 50-55. For parole, I supervised 80-110 parolees. Our caseloads now [with probation] are much smaller — 40-50 clients.”
Modica contrasted case management with parole and probation from the time he worked parole from 2007 to 2011. For parole, due to staffing and funding issues, high-level offenders out on parole for second-degree murder, robberies, first-degree residential burglaries, assault with a deadly weapon, etc., may visit with their parole officers once a month or once a quarter, said Modica, reflecting on his personal experience. If nonviolent parolees didn’t offend for 13 months after release, their parole was automatically completed; violent offenders would be on parole for at least two years.
“Supervision standards were less stringent for parole,” he said.
For probation, he said, offenders may visit with their officers once a week.
“It is very intense at first,” Modica said of probation work, post-realignment. “They must show some level of compliance.”
Modica said that with realignment came various ways to combat recidivism, i.e., to prevent reoffending as well as choosing alternatives to incarceration.
“There are intermediate sanctions; they report more often, do random drug testing, they can enroll in drug and alcohol programs — some type of NA group or AA group,” he said, noting that probation is focused on graduated responses rather than automatic incarceration. Critical thinking also comes into play to prevent criminal activity, similar to programs in place in the jail. “I think we have done the same things with these offenders so long: violate, [incarcerate]. It’s a revolving door, just a cycle. We are trying to show them other ways.”
Ventura parole units, which are based in Oxnard, could not be reached for comment by deadline.
The fight against recidivism
Since the state of California defines recidivism as the conviction of another crime within three year of release, the most current information is based on offenders released from prison in fiscal year 2008-2009, which was 61 percent. Four years ago, the rate was 67.5 percent. According to Barrios, in a conversation with Sheriff Geoff Dean, rough recidivism estimates hovered around 50 percent, but the data was not available by deadline.
There is, however, no data about recidivism rates since realignment went into effect because, well, we just crossed the three-year mark this month and that doesn’t account for the thousands released in the last couple of years. So the conjecture that less time means more crime seems to be all about looking for someone or something to blame and, more likely, a general disdain for crime and those who commit it. In the end, one thing is certain: There are no easy answers in the fight against recidivism.
An inmate’s perspective
Rick, not his real name since he asked to remain anonymous, was in and out of jail and prison seven times on drug charges from 2001 until his last stint in prison in 2011. Incarcerated again on drug charges since last year, he is now housed at the Todd Road jail. For the same charges before realignment, he would have been housed at a state prison. He wouldn’t go into further detail about his crimes but he noted there were significant differences in serving time in prison and jail.
“You’re gonna get a better deal,” he said, talking about serving time in prison versus county jail. “They get more freedom.”
Rick recalled that in prison, by 8:30 a.m., he would be allowed to go out of his cell, with few exceptions, until later at night. Also, he said he had access to the fenced-in yard just about as often.
“By law, every inmate has to have at least 10 hours of yard time a week. Most inmates have more, regardless of custody level. This does not include other times when inmates are out of their cells,” wrote Joe Orlando, with communications of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation by email. “Inmates are people. They have jobs, go to school, go to rehab programs, go to medical and mental health appointments, eat, take showers, go to the law library, etc.”
At the county jail, however, inmates get two hours, maybe four, depending on who you talk to and what you did, out of their cells. Some lower-level inmates sleep on bunk beds in the day room facilities of their cell blocks so their confinement is limited to that room. Inmates get three hours literally outside in the fresh air every seven days, though outside is more or less a caged area surrounded by the walls of the jail.
“It will drive you crazy,” Rick said about spending so much time in his cell. “It’s stressful, not healthy. I’m just fortunate that I am a worker. I am working all day” out of my cell. Work may include duties in the kitchen, laundry room and other basic functions of day-to-day operations that pose no risk to security.
Rick’s other grievances include not getting packages in jail, though he could in prison, and that contact is limited to a phone and a glass partition versus actual face-to-face contact in prison. Accommodations can be made for overnight visits in prison as well. He also stated that for the same offense, in prison he could have worked in fire camp and had his sentence reduced to 35 percent, as he has done in the past.
“I would have been out by now,” he said.
Ventura County Sheriff’s Cmdr. Rick Barrios continued to emphasize the reality of the situation.
Jails are not meant to house inmates for more than a year, he said. Sheriff Geoff Dean agreed wholeheartedly that jail just isn’t set up for long-term incarceration. Dean stated further that if there was one thing lawmakers should address it is limiting time in jail to one-year sentence, but he said that that might present an issue with district attorneys during sentencing, that the prosecution might ask for a longer sentence than normal and send them to prison if it came down to only allowing inmates to serve one year in jail.
Barrios said the average sentence now is 18 months, though one inmate is currently serving 12 years; with good behavior it would be six years.
While it has been known that prisons really don’t serve as a deterrent, Rick, for one, said he never wanted to go back to jail again.