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Crime & Justice

Part I: LA County is ground zero for prison realignment

Officer Craig Suzuki takes information from a young gang member. In an example of some of the miscommunications that can happen with between departments with the new prison realignment system, the Unit meant only to verify the man's address (a prerequisite for release,) and was surprised to find him home - after having been freed a year ago.
Officer Craig Suzuki takes information from a young gang member. In an example of some of the miscommunications that can happen with between departments with the new prison realignment system, the Unit meant only to verify the man's address (a prerequisite for release,) and was surprised to find him home - after having been freed a year ago.
Bear Guerra/KPCC

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On a recent, warm summer evening, three LAPD black and white patrol cars roll up to a house in North Hollywood. It’s quiet, except for the dogs barking.

“This guy is currently out of prison for drugs — drugs, burglaries, thefts. He has a long history of it,” Officer Shawn Smith says. “This is supposed to be his parent’s house.”

In the past, state parole agents monitored everyone coming out of prison. Now, under California’s realignment plan, local probation and police departments handle less serious criminals — those who’ve committed crimes that were not violent, sex related or serious, as defined by the law. Non-serious crimes include offenses you might not expect: assault and battery, and vehicular manslaughter.

RELATED: See a list of felonies included on the non-violent, non serious list.

About one thousand of these ex-offenders are released to L.A. County streets every month – more than any other California county.

“It’s a huge shift in responsibilities, ” says Sgt. Glenn McNeill.

Instead of three years parole with the threat of more prison time if they violate the terms of their release, most of these offenders face one year of probation supervision and county jail time if they break the rules.

On this compliance check in North Hollywood, Bob describes his two trips to prison — for burglary and receiving stolen property. He asked we not use his last name. He says parole was a “nightmare” with more frequent visits than in the current system.

“The more I was under scrutiny, the more I wanted to run amok,” he says as officers search his girlfriend’s home where he is staying. “With less supervision, I feel like I’m not a little kid anymore and they’re treating me like a man and so I’m acting like a man.”

Like an estimated one-third of prison inmates, Bob was a drug addict. He says he’s clean now, and has landed a job.

McNeill says if they found a little marijuana in his house, they’d probably let him slide.

“We are not going to go heavy handed on them,” the sergeant says. “This program is in its infancy. Everyone wants it to work.”

L.A. County Probation Chief Jerry Powers says this is how prison realignment is supposed to work. The idea is to send fewer people back to prison.

“In the probation model, we might look at that guy and say, ‘OK, here is your sanction: Instead of waiting to see us in three weeks, come see us next week and the following week,” Powers says. “Or you’re going to spend three days in county jail.’”

Many in law enforcement are skeptical of the new, more lenient model.

“Very few people in comparison to the number of released people we have in our communities have really had any sanctions against them,” says Gardena Police Chief Ed Medrano, who serves as president of the L.A. County Police Chiefs Association. “And it’s not because they’ve been perfect.”

Medrano and other police officials have complained that state officials consider only the offender’s latest crime when determining whether they are eligible for probation instead of parole.

Vincent is one example. Police have had a hard time tracking him down. He never seems to be home, or refuses to answer the door. This evening, they catch him as he’s taking the trash out.

Vincent, who also asked we not use his last name, doesn’t like the uniformed officers visiting his home. Under the old system, parole agents did not wear uniforms.

“It looks bad on me ‘cause the neighbors start thinking ‘Oh, why are they coming to search his house?’ People start wondering about you,” he says.

Perhaps with good reason: Police say Vincent’s got a long rap sheet that includes a murder charge while in Soledad State Prison. His latest offense just happens to be considered non-serious, so he’s under more relaxed supervision. Vincent, 38, concedes he’s spent nearly half his life — 18 years — behind bars.

“Some of us do try to do better when we come out here, and sometimes we go back to our old ways due to the fact that there is no help,” he says. “People get desperate.”

He also knows from personal experience that old habits can die hard.

“Sometimes people just don’t want to understand and they go back to their old ways right away.”

Vincent’s probation status means he’ll only get police visits every 90 days. He has been showing up for his monthly office visits, but a recent drug test came back dirty. He maintains his three-year-old son is his new motivation to stay out of jail.

“There’s no way I’m going to go out there on the street to do something stupid so I could leave my son hanging.”

L.A. County District Attorney Steve Cooley maintains someone like Vincent eventually will commit a serious crime, and the state will realize what a mistake realignment is. He predicts a spike in crime.

“All the people wearing rose-colored glasses better take them off and smell the roses,” Cooley says. Realignment is “a predictable public safety disaster.”

Some have accused Cooley's office of finding ways to charge people with more serious crimes, in order to send them to state prison.

Few in law enforcement are fans of realignment, but not all take the dim view of Cooley.

For one, many say someone like Vincent may have committed a new crime whether he was under probation or parole supervision. Probation officials also say they are providing more help to people like him.

As police finish questioning him a probation officer asks him how he’s doing, whether he has found work. He is pessimistic. He has a long felony record.

“And I’m not the one to complain and ask for help,” Vincent says. The probation officer encourages him to work with her during his next visit to the office. She reminds him of the date. He had it wrong.

Many of these offenders are illiterate and lack marketable job skills. County mental health officials also have been surprised at the number in psychological distress.

“They probably first got in jail in their late teens, early 20s, and they’ve had a long history of being in and out of jail,” says counselor Eric Howell. “They’re longest period outside is typically no longer than two years.”

They are institutionalized. Howell says the county’s providing referrals to programs that provide counseling, job training and literacy courses. Some community activists aren’t impressed.

Outside a recent Board of Supervisors meeting, they decried a $75 million plan to expand jail space by paying to house inmates at a lockup in Kern County. The Reverend Lewis Logan said that money should instead go to helping ex-cons. He says realignment is challenging common perceptions of criminals.

“If you feel like people are criminals and they really don‚t bring anything to the table … then you want to incarcerate,” he says.

The Baptist minister who teaches at Fuller Theological Seminary says he prefers to see ex-offenders in the light of redemption.

“You see this as an opportunity for people to come out and be given a second chance to really do something with their lives, to create vision and a future for themselves.”

Last fiscal year, the Sheriff’s Department received the lion’s share of $112 million in state funding for realignment — mostly for jail operations as people who committed less-serious felonies were sent to local lockups instead of prison. The jail population in L.A. County has jumped 25 percent to nearly 20,000 inmates.

Jails Chief Alexander Yim says realignment will eventually force more early releases.

“What I’d like to do is get to the point where the lower risk folks can be, based on good behavior, put out in community based organization programs to finish out their sentence, get treatment,” he says.

Yim concedes there are not near enough programs right now. The probation department has been slow to issue contracts to service-providers, and while Sheriff’s officials like Yim talk of the need for more programs they also lobby for more money for jails.

State officials are closely watching Los Angeles County as it grapples with prison realignment. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation chief Matthew Cate says San Francisco bay area counties invested early in infastructure — jails and rehabilitation — and “have done better” with realignment.

“L.A. is the great unknown,” he says. “Its so big. And you have a tremendous amount of politics.”

As California shifts more and more offenders to the control of counties, the question is whether L.A. will duplicate decades of costly state policies that tended to lock people up — or seek another way to end what for many is a revolving door of incarceration.

Click here to read part II of this story