As a 33 year veteran of California law enforcement, I watch the evolving statewide implementation, and the associated debate around AB 109 (Parole Realignment), with great interest and fascination. My career spanned 30 years in municipal law enforcement, serving in both southern and northern California. In July 2006, I was appointed the Director of the Department of Adult Parole Operations (DAPO) for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). I, like the vast majority of police leaders, understood very little about the science, research and complexities of re-entry and parole supervision. To say the subsequent seven years have been eye-opening and tremendously interesting is a vast understatement.  

At a fundamental level, AB 109 is challenging the entire criminal justice system in CA to rethink the decades held commitment to an “offense based” decision making mindset. This approach champions long-term incarceration as the benchmark of truly accountable public safety and the only effective response to criminal behavior. When one contemplates the fact one in 100 American adults are currently serving a term in jail or prison and in California one of every 33 adults is either in jail, in prison, on probation or on parole, this discussion has very real consequences for everyone in our society.

What is the old way of thinking?

California is the only state in the union that has on one side of the system determinate sentencing (little judicial latitude as to length of a sentence) and on the other mandatory parole for everyone coming out of a state institution. This creates a scenario in which the jail and prison population in the state outpaces the capacity of the system, as we have seen since the early 1990’s.  It also requires post-release supervision of many low and low-moderate risk parolees and probationers when decades of research on re-entry/rehabilitation has shown this creates more harm than good for the individual (and therefore society as whole).

I believe we can classify street criminal two ways. There’s a large population of those we are “mad at” and a much smaller population we are “afraid of”. For decades we have treated both groups similarly in our criminal justice system. The system simply defaults to long terms in our jails and prisons when convicted of a crime regardless of the risk the individual factually represents to society.  In other words, if a man is simply starving and attempt to rob a bank to feed himself, he will receive the same sentencing as a gang member with a long-standing methamphetamine addiction who attempts to rob the same bank.

That trend is reversing now as people are starting to realize the need to respond differently to the two groups if we are ever to truly reduce recidivism, impact street crime, address the issue of widespread mental illness and drug/alcohol addiction in this population.  It is no longer acceptable public policy to merely postpone the next crime through mass incarceration, as a 70 percent recidivism rate in California would suggest. Clearly, there is a call to define “accountability” and “public safety” in more robust terms so that the causes of criminal behavior are contemplated and addressed throughout the decision making process in the justice system.

Where are we at now?

AB 109 has, for the first time my career, created a set of facts wherein all the disciplines in the criminal justice system (Police, Sheriff, District Attorney, Public Defender, Probation, Parole, service providers, elected officials, etc.) now have “skin in the game.”  This incentivizes collaboration, which is absent and badly needed because prisoner re-entry is no longer an abstract State responsibility. They are all dependent on the coordinated actions and decisions of each other if the desired outcome is to reduce crime while also reducing jail/prison populations all across our state.  It is this complicated mandate that is creating the struggle to implement the legislation.

Each of the public safety disciplines in our culture has “what they do.”  Each is driven by policy, regulation, administrative oversight and law that often contains little regard for the impact their actions have on the other “pieces” of the system.  As one example, when we send police officers and deputies, whose primary objectives are the arrest of criminals and the seizure of evidence, into the homes of probationers and parolees to conduct compliance checks, they don’t have the same set of sensitivities or understanding as a trained parole or probation officer.

The police are doing what they think is “right,” what they are trained to do. Yet there is a fundamental collision of culture here. Whereas police may kick down a door and act like they are serving a warrant, the necessary approach is one that prioritizes developing positive, long-term relationships with parolees and probationers, their families and the service providers. Everything done must build trust so as to maximize the likelihood of successful re-entry. There are similar “collisions” all through the system, creating an unanticipated outcome wherein one agenda can effectively derail the other.

Implementing AB 109 is further complicated by the decimation of County Probation departmental budgets across our state in virtually every budget cycle since 2007/08.  The vast majority of these departments are now unable to provide meaningful supervision to more than a fraction of the total population ordered to community supervision by the local courts. In many counties this can mean something less than 20 percent of the total population is actually assigned to an officer. Most taxpaying citizens would assume this number is much higher.

Combine that with the virtual absence of rehabilitative programs throughout our state because Boards, Councils and Planning Commissions historically refuse to issue permits for community service providers and it’s clear why other pieces of the system react as they do. Take the use (or lack thereof) of “split sentencing” in the courts. If the rehabilitative infrastructure existed in county probation, which is where those with split sentences spend partial time under supervision and in programs, District Attorneys wouldn’t be changing their filing practices to encourage more convictions that result in a sentence to state prison. Judges also shy away from handing down split sentences for the very same reasons.

What happens next?

I am a believer in the fundamental logic and appropriateness of AB 109. Systemic change in the criminal justice system in CA is long overdue. Like most, I don’t think the legislation was developed under ideal circumstances. It’s a challenging law to implement. It’s much more complicated than simply focusing on who is or is not in state prison.  AB 109 represents a unique opportunity to develop and implement locally conceived and controlled systemic change in criminal justice social policy unlike anything I have seen in my career.

But there is hope. I have recently been involved in a number of convenings, sponsored by California Forward’s Partnership for Community Excellence, during which representatives from all over the State, from every identified stakeholder, gathered together to discuss many difficult criminal justice policy topics.  To name just a few:

Supported by science and discussed in rational, unemotional terms I am confident we can learn from our past, factually consider the success of others in this debate and build a more effective, responsive and sustainable criminal justice system in California…. community by community.

Crossposted on CalFwdReporting