Prisons, realignment and the California rehab racket
California realigned its prison system more than two years ago, but rehabilitation is still out of whack
Tim Gene Sanders is about to get busted for possessing a saltshaker.
It’s February 2011, and Sanders is on his way home from a community center in Citrus Heights. He hangs a left on Auburn Boulevard when a patrol cruiser pulls him up short for making an unsafe lane change. The hangdog ex-con with the rebel-cool hair knows the drill. He’s on probation, so the cops get to toss his vehicle. Inside, they find a saltshaker and an empty sandwich bag. Sanders was snacking on hard-boiled eggs, but Citrus Heights’ finest assume the white granules at the bottom of the shaker are meth.
By the time the charges are dropped, the damage is done. Sanders spends 19 days in county jail and loses his car to a prohibitive impound fee. His house goes next.
“That’s the system,” Sanders says. “That’s how the system works.”
He would know. He got out of Sacramento County Main Jail only days ago for taking Tylenol with codeine No. 3. The pain meds—prescribed by a doctor after Sanders got out of the clink and hoofed it 10 miles on arthritic hips to his car—made it appear there was heroin in his system. Before that, Sanders went to jail for seeing the doctor instead of his parole officer. And before that, his P.O. violated him for not being able to produce a urine sample. That last one really irked.
“Dude, I’m 60 years old,” he grumbles. “I don’t wake up with a hard-on every morning, either. Am I gonna get violated for that, too?”
Despite genuine efforts to fly straight in recent years, the onetime convicted burglar can’t escape a system that deposits him like a payroll check. He’s one of many.
After a decades-long binge constructing superprisons and writing tough-on-crime laws, California’s incarceration bubble burst when the state could no longer keep up with demand. Brought to the brink of a federal takeover, desperate lawmakers dumped tens of thousands of low-level offenders on their counties under a cobbled-together plan called “realignment.”
Rehabilitation became the word and counties the reluctant apostles. For this burden, local Community Corrections Partnerships receive tens of millions of dollars, which they’re supposed to spend on bettering the state’s sky-high recidivism rate. But the taxpayers’ money comes with few strings and little oversight, and these CCPs, made up of local law-enforcement bosses, spend it on themselves.
Heading into this third year of realignment, Sacramento County’s slab of this state-carved pie will surpass $75 million. Not one crumb goes directly to outside programs, such as Ascend, a small criminal-rehab outfit that gives one-on-one attention to offenders.
Ascend and a handful of other true believers are fighting to change this, both inside and outside the system, but they’re up against a culture that’s learned too well from the state’s failed example. “If we’re really going to make a difference in some of these people’s lives, it’s going to require us to do things a little bit different, if not a lot,” argues County Supervisor Don Nottoli. “You can’t just lock them up and let them go and watch over them.”
Yet warehousing bodies hasn’t gone out of style. Small community-based organizations that claim a better model are ignored. And some say the system isn’t a system at all. It’s a racket.
Toni Carbone, dressed cozily in a knit cap and yoga pants, marks up a whiteboard with the steps that will take someone from being hungry and low on gas to handcuffed in the back of a patrol cruiser. Avoiding jail, it turns out, is a lot like plotting a chess move.
“Believe me when I say the criminal-justice system is like a tornado,” Carbone warns a diverse batch of former felons. “The closer you get to it, the more you’ll get sucked in.”
Tonight’s class of eight—white and black, young and old, poor and poorer—knows what it feels like to be sacrificed like pawns, and listens closely.
For about as long as realignment has existed, so has Ascend, which resides in a blanched office park near North Highlands. Twice a week, Carbone and co-founder Christine Galves take turns discussing heady subjects like thought chains, decision fatigue and the abstinence violation effect. They quiz offenders on the difference between a fresh charge and a probation violation, and drill the concept of constructive possession, which can get a probationer busted for someone else’s drugs or guns.
The women, both defense attorneys, explain how all this applies to someone like Shawn David Yount, who’s on probation for shoplifting dog food.
The ex-firefighter is on disability for a congenital heart defect. Last April, he was at the end of the month, flat broke, and stole some grub for his dog and girlfriend. Then he got busted. Six months later, the same thing happened.
“There is that entire segment of people that gets re-arrested over and over,” Carbone tells SN&R. “We back them up to the point where they can see it coming.”
Since being court-ordered to Ascend, Yount parcels out his limited funds more wisely and has taken the first halting steps toward getting a heart transplant, which, the recovering smoker admits, “scares the hell out of me.”
Carbone, the nurturing “mom,” and Galves, the funny “dad,” take their students on community-college field trips, grocery shopping at Whole Foods Market and to the discount movie theater. They end each class with yoga, except for the nights when they’re pushing students out of their comfort zones and up an indoor rock-climbing wall. Everyone climbs. Everyone falls. Then they make them do it again.
Sanders was one of Ascend’s first clients, and is one of many graduates who returns just to hang out.
“I’ve been ordered to do AA, NA, who-gives-a-fuck-A,” Sanders says. “I’m kind of difficult. I’m an old dog. It’s kind of hard to teach me new tricks.”
He thought Ascend would be more of the same. “But you see that their little hearts are in it,” he says. “When you fuck up, it makes you feel kind of guilty about it. … It makes you want to do what you’re supposed to do.”
Forty students have gone through the program—another six are currently enrolled—with only four getting new convictions. Ascend’s 10 percent recidivism rate is an embarrassment to a county that can’t crack below the 65-percent mark.
Maybe that’s why they can’t get any love from the CCP.
Three times Carbone and Galves requested less than $400,000 (or what the CCP budgets to hold two years’ worth of meetings) to expand their program. To say they were denied would be overstating it; they weren’t even acknowledged.
This, despite a Sacramento State University-developed curriculum, the backing of political heavies like state Assemblymen Roger Dickinson and Richard Pan, and support from county supervisors. Ascend’s travails are symptomatic of the greater problem, says Dickinson.
“Sacramento’s approach thus far has been pretty much focused on a more, let’s say, traditional incarceration and probation model,” he tells SN&R.
The early research bears that out. During the first year under realignment, Sacramento realigned fewer offenders than 46 other counties, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice reports. The county saw no public-safety gains by continuing to send a higher rate of lower-level drug and property offenders to state prison during that first year, and actually reported sharper increases in violent and property crimes than counties that realigned more offenders.
Failure on the recidivism front has, counterintuitively, allowed the CCP to rationalize keeping realignment moneys in-house for additional bodies and beds. The fewer people that get effectively rehabbed, the more of them there are to stuff into jails and supervise when released. This year, that includes $16.6 million for additional jail housing and $3.7 million for increased supervision.
“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy!” chuckles Michael Carrington, who heads up a government and public-affairs consulting firm and staffed ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Rehabilitation Strike Team.
Carrington, a former California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation official, is sympathetic to the plight all counties face in stretching inadequate funding dollars beyond what he calls “raw, fixed operational costs” like jail housing, food and medical services—the essentials, in other words.
There is universal acknowledgment that redirected offenders are generally better at gaming the system, sicker and in for longer sentences than local counties are used to. Factor in that the sheriff’s department lost a $12 million state contract when realignment went into effect, and the new money spreads even thinner, argues interim chief probation officer Suzanne Collins, who also chairs the CCP.
“We’re trying to leverage all the resources we have, because we don’t have enough,” she says.
But the original idea behind realignment was for counties to do a better, cheaper job of rehabilitating low-level, homegrown offenders by sending them to smaller programs, counter Tor Tarantola and Aaron Edwards of the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.
“The state assumed these counties wouldn’t simply be incarcerating all these offenders in their jails,” Edwards adds.
The state assumed wrong.
State checks out, county cashes in
When California made headlines two years ago for fast-tracking realignment, few acknowledged the actual motives. In a blink, California’s old-testament philosophy was out, and everyone gathered in a circle to sing the praises of effective rehab. The state didn’t do this because it suddenly realized the error of its tough-on-crime ways, but because it had to.
In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court came down hard on the Golden State for an overcrowded prison system it labeled inhumane and equated to a state of emergency. California was ordered to unload 30,000 offenders or else fall under federal receivership.
Legend has it that on the sixth day, realignment was born. On the seventh, Gov. Jerry Brown clapped his hands clean of the mess.
Except for a superficial bit of self-reporting, the state doesn’t monitor how counties spend the $2.25 billion it will dispense through 2014. It can’t even begin to ask what’s not working, Tarantola says. (Sacramento County is only now investing in such data collection itself, Collins says.)
According to Dickinson, that’s because the Brown administration wasn’t initially interested in tracking results. Perhaps realizing that churlish Republicans won’t let him disown realignment, the governor since changed his tune.
In February, the LAO recommended an integrated statewide management system that could start tracking outcomes. And Dickinson introduced his own uniform data-collection bill earlier this year. But any meaningful results are years away.
In the meantime, law-enforcement agencies with gutted budgets have a rich uncle who asks no questions. Last month, Carbone and Galves lobbied state lawmakers to re-examine the law that made all this possible: Assembly Bill 109. It and a host of trailer bills created a funding spout that only gushes in one direction. While counties can spend on nongovernment programs, they’re not forced to. Many counties have decided to do this on their own, Dickinson says, but not Sacramento.
Carbone and Galves asked lawmakers to tweak A.B. 109 so that a very small percentage of realignment money must go to outside organizations. No word yet on whether that will happen.
“The system is designed to make all the [departments] in the criminal-justice system compete over money and resources,” Galves reasons. The agency heads on the CCP board view a little nonprofit like hers, shaking its tin cup for a few shekels, as someone “taking food out of their mouths.”
Fairly or unfairly, many critics point out probation leadership as the hungriest eaters. The sheriff’s department reaps the lion’s share of realignment moneys, but benefits from the perception that it’s turning the corner toward providing actual rehab to those incarcerated at its main detention facility.
Probation, meanwhile, is and has been losing a war of attrition. Budget cuts have forced the embattled department to shed a third of its workforce in recent years. Even with realignment funding, officers supervise only 12 percent of the county’s more than 22,000 probationers. (Sanders, who’s on both state parole and supervised county probation, hasn’t met his probation officer.)
The department seems to be making its last stand with its adult day reporting centers, which basically function as referral hubs for programming services. Thus far, the results have been spotty.
Almost 900 A.B. 109ers have received treatment through these centers. Probation doesn’t yet know whether anyone completed a program or recidivated since entering. According to an internal effective-practices report from June 2012, zero felony probationers completed programs through 2011 and 39 failed. The report also states that training probation staff to facilitate evidence-based interventions “with fidelity” proved largely unsuccessful.
Critics say the $4.5 million in realignment funds going to one of these centers this year would be better spent on community providers.
“The sheriff’s department is putting more of its efforts into support services, at least,” Dickinson says. “But probation has stayed pretty much focused on using the money to rebuild the ranks of probation officers.”
The lawmaker and others concede there must be intense internal pressure to hold on to state moneys when no one is saying you have to do otherwise. Probation has historically been on the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to county funding and has to patch together the rest of its dwindling budget from other sources, some of which may be drying up.
“Probation officers around the state would probably tell you they’re the stepchildren of law-enforcement agencies,” Dickinson says.
And when it comes to local realignment spending, the head stepchild is in charge.
Renegades to the rescue
Inside a tan fortress just off a lush country road in southern Elk Grove, a lawyer and four convicts play out a warped version of The Bachelorette. But instead of roses, Ascend’s Galves offers something with an even shorter shelf life: second chances.
For the past couple of months, Galves has visited the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center to scope out prospects for the criminal-rehab program she and Carbone dreamed up while rock climbing three years ago.
Thus far, Galves has been unable to find a match to her liking.
“This is a unique contract, and we can’t be reckless with who we choose for this program,” she tells today’s hopefuls. “The whole world is watching.”
She has reason to be cautious. Ascend is here on the invitation of one man: Capt. Milo Fitch, who took over command of RCCC in May 2011, five short months before the realignment bomb hit.
The cerebral Fitch, with crystal-clear eyes that steer him past bullshit, is interested in nothing short of reforming the whole damn system. In A.B. 109 he glimpses an imperfect vehicle to do just that.
“With realignment, the focus is on us to do a better job, and we’re the community to do that,” he promises. “We’re going to be the model for the state.”
The commander crisscrossed the nation researching approaches and funding opportunities. He’s had to, as the CCP will only contribute $500,000 to his cause. So he’s dipped heavily into his own budget to fund a series of rehab programs he believes in and formed creative partnerships to do the rest.
For instance, after the CCP rejected Ascend’s funding request last October, Fitch reached out to the program and carved out a pay-per-service contract that tops out at $180,000.
Back at the correctional center, Galves rests casually on a metal picnic table inside a balmy rec room. One table over and flanked by guards are today’s suitors—a ragtag collection of hardscrabble inmates sporting jail-issued duds and an array of nervous tics.
The baby of the bunch—and only A.B. 109er—is 25-year-old Brandon Cryderman. The tall, callow-faced inmate has already racked up 10 court cases in Sacramento, the latest being a stolen-vehicle conviction that nailed him with a two-year jail bit in January. Cryderman’s dad was a welder who spent 11 years in state prison. That alone made the young felon exponentially more likely to end up incarcerated.
The other three inmates, all 41, answer forthrightly when Galves posits a question, and only shyly clam up when she tells them that pairing methamphetamine and sex will never be as good as it was that very first time: “You know that, don’t you?” she pokes.
Cryderman, on the other hand, is terse, rationing out one- and two-word answers to every question. Galves keeps after him to see whether he’s nervous or a prick. She opens that riddle up to the room, in a fashion.
“You three, this could be your last chance. You could get out and never see this place again,” she says to grunts of approval. “But you,” she says to Cryderman, “you’re in a different place. Can anyone tell him?”
A straw-haired bruiser named Christian Gerlach shifts his muscled frame and regards Cryderman with something like sympathy. “If I were you,” he says softly, “I’d just slap myself.”
After Galves gets what she needs, a few of the inmates hang back to ask questions. Mark Airons wonders if Galves has gotten his letters and talked to his mother, who’s been calling on his behalf. She has. Gerlach worries he can’t afford the ankle-monitor fee that comes with getting an early release into the Ascend program. Fitch’s No. 2 at the facility, Lt. Mark Maubach, tells him not to worry about it.
Both lawyer and jailer want this to work.
Hovering just outside all of this is young Cryderman. He lingers by the rec room exit, but never quite walks out. Someone compliments the sketches he’s penciled all over his folder, coaxing an embarrassed smile.
“Thanks,” he says. “I actually have much nicer stuff. I like shading more than I like to draw.”
Maybe there’s a career path in tattoo art, he muses. Then the young man stuffs the folder down the front of his sweats and ambles out into the sunlight. He’s got a few more months before he’d even be eligible for an early release, so why hope?
But Galves is sold. When asked about Cryderman’s poker-faced attitude, she rustles a hand through her long, tangled mane.
“He was just scared,” she decides. “All we have to do is introduce him to some cool college students, and he can turn this all around.”
Ascend and Fitch are two reasons Dickinson is cautiously optimistic about our local system.
“I think we’re finally headed—at least with some false steps—we’re headed in the right direction,” he says.
The next opportunity to test that hypothesis is April 9. That’s when the board of supervisors gets its first look at the CCP’s allocation plan. For the first time, supervisors will consider leveraging their own depleted resources to support the programs the CCP hasn’t. Perhaps fittingly, the board granted Ascend a hearing on the same day.
Full speed ahead
It’s a balmy Wednesday in March, and Sanders, dressed in a loose V-neck and grungy coveralls, is a grease-stained mess. The 57-year-old sits under a makeshift canopy in a gravel lot behind a cigarette store in Citrus Heights, looking at his sooty hands, gnarled from years of manual labor. They’re practically black with grime.
“I don’t like getting my fingernails dirty anymore,” he grins.
At one point a long time ago, Sanders wanted to be a doctor. For reasons as unique as they are universal, he became an ex-con instead.
Since 1990, Sanders has amassed a dozen court cases, mostly on drug possession charges. His most serious offense was a first-degree felony burglary conviction in 1997.
Except for the multiple times he’s spent incarcerated in state and county penitentiaries—and a brief stretch working on an oil rig in Alaska in the ’80s—Sanders never ventured far from his blue-collar suburb in northeastern Sacramento County. His parents went to the same local middle school a few miles away, and the cousin he’s staying with is just a few blocks north of this Auburn Boulevard lot. He points south to the knobby heads of a few pine trees pricking the bleached sky. They belong to the front yard he lost a couple years ago.
In all senses of the word, Sanders is a lifer—a lifelong Citrus Heights resident and a lifelong veteran of the criminal-justice system. Aside from his cousin, Sanders has no other family, no descendants. The system, keeping him hopping from one jail bunk to the next, never gave him much time.
“We’re next to be planted,” he offers, looking at those treetops. “I can see it coming clearer and clearer.”
But not yet.
Sanders’ current passion is a 1972 MG Midget that was gathering mothballs in someone’s garage. He bought it a few months ago and is in the midst of restoring the little convertible—replacing the weathered upholstery and installing a new top he found on eBay. He’ll get to that two-toned red-and-metal paint job eventually, too.
Under all that rust and neglect is a beautiful dream only Sanders can see. It’s a long way from getting there, with so many obstacles, naysayers and opportunists in the way. But that old roadster’s 1600cc engine still has some fire in its belly.
Sanders tested that fire on the highway, heaving his foot against the accelerator and rattling the speedometer dial toward triple digits. The wheel churned in his hands and the hull quivered like a rocket cracking the atmosphere. In these moments, Sanders isn’t sure whether his runty old dream can take it. But he’s finding out.