Prison realignment: go directly to jail?

Rehabilitation experts say California’s big prison ‘realignment’ is a real opportunity for change

Don Meyer, chief probation agent for Sacramento County, supports evidence-based programs as a means to cut recidivism and help realignment work.

Don Meyer, chief probation agent for Sacramento County, supports evidence-based programs as a means to cut recidivism and help realignment work.


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Realignment is here. But instead of just transferring California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation offenders from one place—prison—to another—the county jail—some are saying realignment offers a real opportunity to lower recidivism and crime rates. And, this time, there’s actually a bit of state funding to pay for it.

In meetings earlier this month, the Community Corrections Program allotted $13.1 million in funds for the transition of state prisoners to local supervision. Roughly 61 percent of this money, however, will go to the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department for programs that include reopening a jail and more beds for inmates. Meanwhile, the remaining approximately $5 million will be given to Sacramento County Chief Probation Officer Don L. Meyer.

He hopes the funds will help prove that his agency’s low-level offenders, all convicted of nonviolent and nonsexual crimes, benefit more from things such as one-on-one behavioral counseling than just sitting around in a room.

“Most people equate being locked up with a change in behavior,” Meyers said, “and it does change their behavior: It makes them worse. Low-level offenders get worse, and they associate with high-level offenders and get worse.”

Meyers instead argues that, with proper supervision while on probation and parole, as well as access to treatment and training programs, Sacramento’s share of nonviolent offenders might be able to step off the offend, go to jail, get released, reoffend carousel.

By law, some of the funds involved for realignment must be used for evidence-based programs and probation supervision. Meyer calls this rehabilitation that works. He says some Sacramento County Department of Probation staff will operate these programs, but that some will be contracted out for relatively new and effective mental-health and cognitive-behavioral treatment programs with community-based providers.

One such program for criminal offenders who are on probation or parole is Sacramento-based Ascend.

“This kind of cognitive-behavioral program looks different than what’s usually been done,” explained Christine Galves, a former criminal-defense attorney who now runs Ascend.

She and Ascend co-founder Toni Carbone argue that new rehabilitation programs need to combine a change in thinking with the acquisition of life skills.

“If you look at some of the programs that [offenders] are required to do, they’re very expensive,” Galves said, “and sometimes they just set up a video and walk away. So the clients know that these [providers] don’t care; they’re just making money.”

Carbone says you have to earn “the respect and trust of a client.” As Meyer noted: “These are people who were going to parole and that are now coming to probation, as well as the people that can’t go to prison because of overcrowding and are now staying in the county,” so they’re coming from a world where you can’t always rely on someone.

But cognitive-behavioral programs such as Ascend use a different model that, in addition to teaching offenders life skills—how to get a job or balance a checkbook—also spend time teaching clients to recognize their own faulty thinking and decision-making, which is usually the reason that the individual ended up in jail in the first place.

Toni Carbone (left) and Christine Galves (right), former criminal-defense attorneys, work with parolees and probationers in the Sacramento-based Ascend program.


And that, according to Meyer, is what makes the difference in evidence-based rehabilitation: The fact that they are “multiple-approach programs that address the four main issues that affect re-offending—the way the person thinks, the way they live, their family and their social groups.”

“If you go after the top four reasons for criminality, you’ve got a pretty good chance of stopping recidivism,” Meyer said.

Without cognitive change, though—an alteration in the way of thinking about their lives and the world—Galves noted that up to 70 percent of the returning inmates would commit new crimes.

“Often, they don’t even understand the terms of their probation,” Carbone added. She noted that, both in working with clients as a criminal-defense attorney and also after founding Ascend, she and Galves found that most offenders don’t totally comprehend what they must do to avoid being sent back to jail.

“Clients will say that they understand what the judge has told them, and what their attorney has told them about the terms of their probation,” said Carbone, “but there’s an emotional component.” Offenders are under such stress that they don’t hear—or understand—the details. This leads them to violate probation unintentionally.

Galves gave the example of a common probation term: the requirement that the probationer have no weapons.

“These guys think that means that they can’t have any weapons on them or in the house,” Galves said. “But it actually means things like ‘constructive possession,’ so if they take a ride to work with a buddy and that friend has a gun in the car, they’ve violated probation and are going back to jail. And it also applies to ammunition, so if that buddy is a hunter who left a shotgun shell in the console, he’s still violated probation.”

The Ascend program addresses how an offender can avoid such situations—it’s harder than you think—by recognizing the social needs of released offenders. And it’s not a question of living in isolation to observe the terms of probation, added Carbone.

“They can’t just be by themselves. That’s what they did in jail,” she said. “The greatest ‘criminogenic need,’ as they call it, is the need to have a good social environment, a pro-social environment. And we have to help them learn how to do that.”

Cognitive-behavioral programs like Ascend amount to “a very good step toward long-term reductions in recidivism,” said Meyer.

“Every place that has gone to this method has seen a reduction in crime. You target the moderate-high and high-risk offenders, and you can affect and change their behavior.”

The county’s $13.1 million in realignment funding will pay both for the expansion of a home-detention monitoring program and the reopening of the Roger Bauman Facility at the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center, including 275 beds.

Meyer’s approximately $5 million will add two supervision units, an intake unit addition and an adult day reporting center that will include the cognitive-behavioral treatment programs, GED classes, job training, mental-health programs, and assessment for risk of re-offending.

Most people are concerned that realignment means hardened criminals are being returned to the community. That’s not the case, according to Meyer. And, he noted, “jail and prison are exorbitantly expensive. If you can keep 10 people out of jail, you’ve saved substantial amounts of money.”

Not to mention a whole lot of trouble.