State Parolees Get Little Help Coming Out of Prison

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This week, KPCC is examining how the state of California helps people reenter society after prison. Governor Schwarzenegger wants to reduce a big budget shortfall by releasing 22,000 inmates early. Right now, most ex-offenders end up back behind bars. In part three of our five-part series, KPCC's Frank Stoltze reports on efforts to change that. (This series was produced by Frank Stoltze as part of a fellowship with USC's Institute for Justice and Journalism)

Frank Stoltze: As director of California Adult Parole Operations, Tom Hoffman is responsible for 160,000 parolees on the streets.

Tom Hoffman: I'm not a liberal. I am Republican and conservative by nature, but just from a pure logic point of view, there are any number of those folks who, given the right kind of treatment and an opportunity, we could turn them around.

Dennis Wirt: You're gonna make decisions starting today, this morning, how positive are you gonna be about yourself.

Stoltze: Two-hundred parolees sit in a Pomona auditorium. They're fresh out of prison attending their one and only post-release orientation meeting. It includes a few graphically honest minutes on safe sex.

Educator: A lot of times when people take off their condom, what they'll do is, they'll take it out, (snaps condom) and they'll do that. Aah it's in my eye! (laughing)

Stoltze: It's a light moment in an otherwise serious session devoted to urging men and women who've gone astray to take a better path. Parolees receive information on drug treatment and job training programs.

Joan Petersilia: We need a much more intensive program for the first 30 days out. Most parolees fail very, very quickly.

Stoltze: UC Irvine Criminologist Joan Petersilia serves as a special advisor to Governor Schwarzenegger. She says other states address parolees' needs better.

Petersilia: In Illinois, when you get out, everybody goes to a halfway house for the first three months out. They front load parole services so that your first month out, you are seen daily.

Stoltze: In Illinois, 44% of parolees end up back in prison. In California, that percentage is close to 70 – highest in the nation.

David Labbe: 794.
Stoltze:So this is one of your single rooms for one of the folks on parole.
Labbe: This is a very typical room.

Stoltze: The Weingart Center in downtown Los Angeles houses one of the Department of Corrections' few residential programs for parolees. Kevin MacDonald teaches literacy here. His average student hasn't gone to school beyond eighth grade.

Kevin MacDonald: The biggest challenge is overcoming the negativity that many of them have attached to education in general. For most of these students, the traditional K through 12 sort of failed them. And what I try to do here is create a safe place for them to come in, realize that there's still time to learn. Some of my students are dealing with learning disabilities. Here, we can address that.

Stoltze: Phil Bead landed here after his seventh trip to prison.

Phil Bead: Over the years I've been in and out of prison. My people, they done kinda like, got tired of me paroling there.
Stoltze:So you didn't have any place to go. No one would take you in.
Bead: Exactly.

Stoltze: A lack of stable housing often sends parolees back into crime. Forty-five-year-old Bead is a member of the notorious Bounty Hunters gang in Watts. Like two-thirds of parolees, he struggles with substance abuse. This six-month residential program helped him kick drugs, obtain his first social security card and enroll in a program to learn medical billing.

Bead: Things are looking up now, you know what I'm saying? Where as of before, you know, I used to always turn to the streets and go out there, you know, and I would end up right back.
Stoltze: What's different now, this time?
Bead: Well, just me being tired of living that way. Believe me, its still there, them urges are still there!

Stoltze: Bead's chosen to quit the life before. This time, he's got support. Parole Agent Dave Labbe runs this program. It requires parolees to get a job and save three-quarters of their income in preparation for release.

Dave Labay: People that succeed, honestly, are ones that stay in the program.
Stoltze: What's the challenge in getting them to stay?
Labay: Drug issues are the predominant issue with a majority of our parole population.

Stoltze: Criminologist Joan Petersilia says rehabilitation should start in prison with drug, education, and jobs programs. She says it would cost as much as $125,000 per offender – three times the current yearly cost of incarceration. Petersilia argues it's worth paying to prevent even a fraction of parolees from committing new crimes.

Petersilia: You've got new victims, which means you've got police, court, parole costs. You've got jail costs. It's hugely expensive to be operating such an ineffective corrections system.

Stoltze: The budget of that prison system has grown 80% over five years to $10 billion. The state spends less than 10% of that trying to keep people from coming returning to prison.