By Lynn Graebner
When California counties took over responsibility from the state for large numbers of new felons more than two years ago, they had to quickly decide how to deal with them.
Offenders who once would have been sent to prison were redirected to the counties in 2011 to relieve prison overcrowding. Some counties are spending the bulk of their prison reform funding on rehabilitation, others are building more jails.
Santa Cruz County’s Sheriff’s Department plans to do both. It has already heavily invested in 27 rehabilitation programs. Now it is applying for a state grant to change the way it houses some inmates, creating a stepping stone to independence: The Department wants to start a minimum-security rehabilitation and reentry facility with 64 private rooms at the county jail.
The intent is to relieve the overcrowding that has plagued counties like Los Angeles by adding more space to the jail. The county also wants to help ex-offenders find a place in their communities after their release — hopefully a permanent place.
Justice system experts find that a smoother transition to freedom makes offenders less likely to end up in jail again.
The Sheriff’s office plans to create the reentry facility by converting a 260-bed building next to the Rountree Men’s Medium Security Facility in Watsonville. The building was closed a few years ago due to budget cuts, said Lieutenant Shea Johnson, Rountree’s supervisor.
The renovated building would be an unlocked facility surrounded by a security fence. Inmates would have their own rooms and more responsibility for doing their laundry and attending lots of support groups and vocational classes, Johnson said.
“Those first few months you really have to have a structured plan if you’re going to do things differently,” said Rountree Programs Director Kristie Clemens. “We’re bringing the community to Rountree to work with folks so there’s a seamless transition.”
On Dec. 12 the committee of the Board of State and Community Corrections recommended that Santa Cruz and 14 other counties receive part of the $500 million created by SB 1022 for upgrades to local jails, including space for rehabilitation.
Santa Cruz ranked first in the medium-sized county group and stands to get $24.64 million in lease revenue bonds pending the Board’s approval on Jan. 16.
Currently Rountree has 58 inmates who could be moved to the minimum security reentry building, freeing up 58 beds in the medium security building for inmates at the main jail, which has recently housed as many as 414 despite having a rated capacity of 311, Johnson said.
Getting into the reentry building would depend on an inmate’s classification, but also his behavior and willingness to participate in programs, she said.
Currently Rountree only has two classrooms, limiting the amount of services it can provide. The expansion would add six more.
Rountree already provides programs for addictions, anger management, education and an innovative program called R.I.S.E. (Reclaiming Integrity, Self Awareness and Empowerment). But with the potential for significant additional space, Clemens is working on lining up many more classes in areas like culinary arts, horticulture, computer programming and cognitive and behavioral development.
The idea, said Clemens, is to provide programming that is available both in jail and in the community so ex-offenders like Paul Maartense have continuity when they are released.
Maartense has been in and out of jails and four California prisons since he was 17. Depression and drugs are what dragged him down, he said. He’s now 38 and was released from Rountree in August. He said the single most helpful thing for him has been having the same therapists and other instructors both in custody and on the outside.
“I’m not having to relearn someone’s teaching style and rehash what I’ve been through, and be uncomfortable,” he said
Robert Endacott, 32, has also been in and out of jail and prison for a good part of his life. He attended R.I.S.E. and other programs at Rountree and after serving seven months of a three-year sentence was released with an ankle monitor in April. He just finished his first semester at Cabrillo College and anticipates straight A’s.
He sees a huge change in the justice system over the last decade. Ten years ago when he’d get out of custody he’d have no place to stay, no job and no health care, he said.
“The system now is really meant to help you succeed.”
Like Santa Cruz, San Francisco is experimenting with a reentry pod, which opened in one of the county jails in February. Inmates get programs similar to Rountree’s and they get connected to community treatment centers, benefits, housing and job training before they are released.
There isn’t much data on the success of reentry programs, said Zachary Dal Pra, managing associate for the Crime and Justice Institute.
“Reentry is a significant step in addressing recidivism. Can we prepare them for life in the community is a big topic now with lots of federal dollars being spent on outcomes studies,” he said.
While the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the Sheriff Department’s reentry proposal, there has been some local opposition. Members of Sin Barras, a Santa Cruz group fighting prison expansion, protested in Sacramento when the Sheriff’s office presented its proposal.
CURB, Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a coalition of organizations working to reduce prison spending, also opposes the project.
“Given how cutting edge Santa Cruz has been in addressing realignment it’s a shame we’re not seeing a reduction of jail beds,” said Emily Harris, CURB’s statewide coordinator.
She praised the award winning CAP (Custody Alternatives Program) that the Santa Cruz Sheriff’s office instituted to release low-level offenders with electronic ankle bracelets or other supervision. But with the proposed jail expansion she feels Santa Cruz is following a statewide trend of counties expanding facilities to increase programs.
“In order to maintain resources they’re having to rebrand themselves as social workers,” she said. “Programs in prison and jails are great, I think the fear is that people have to be locked up to get social services.”
But Johnson sees the proposal as a reduction in beds since the plan is to convert a 260-bed facility to 64 beds. She added that not everyone is eligible for the CAP program based on their sentencing. Plus many people on CAP have full-time jobs making it difficult to attend classes. Lack of transportation can be a barrier too, she said.
The reentry facility would allow inmates to focus on themselves before they’re faced with the responsibilities and pressures of life beyond jail, she said.