Outside a small backhouse in a section of North Hollywood with no sidewalks, a man stands shirtless. Tattoos cover his body. The ink on his chest reads Clanton 14 — one of the oldest gangs in the city.
LAPD officers are questioning Johnny as part of a probation compliance check. Johnny, is just 22 years old and has been out of prison for a year after serving a sentence for assault and battery.
He doesn’t want to give his last name, but says he’s got a job at a KFC and attends trade school. He hopes to give up the criminal life.
"It's actually all up to us if you want to change or not, you know what I mean. If you do want to go back and hang out with your friends, you know exactly where you’re going to end up," said Johnny.
Within another two years, upwards of 30,000 non-serious ex-offenders like Johnny will end up in county hands. It may be true, they need to decide to change themselves, but many are drug addicts, illiterate and lack marketable job skills.
County mental health officials have been surprised at the number in psychological distress, and many share similar characteristics.
"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 for a lot of minor crimes — petty theft, grand theft auto, drug charges — their longest period outside in the community is typically no longer than two years," said Eric Howell, a counselor who works with ex-offenders.
Howell says the county’s providing referrals to programs that provide counseling, job training and literacy courses. Some community activists aren’t impressed.
To Incarcerate or Rehabilitate?
Outside a recent Board of Supervisors meeting, realignment critics decried a proposal 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, that they're just going to continue to do what they do, then you want to incarcerate," said Logan. “If 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, you see that as an opportunity."
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 jumped 25 percent to nearly 20,000 inmates.
Jail Chief Alexander Yim says realignment will eventually force more early releases.
“What I’d like to do is get to the point where the N3 population — the lower risk folks — can be based on good behavior, put out in community-based organization programs to finish out their sentence," said Yim.
But there are not nearly enough programs right now. The probation department has been slow to issue contracts to service-providers.
L.A. District Attorney Steve Cooley maintains all of the prisoners who were in state prison should have remained there, and that California’s historic drop in crime was due in part to one of the most aggressive incarceration schemes in the nation. He refers to the name of the realignment legislation when deriding it.
"All the people wearing rose-colored glasses better take ‘em off, smell the roses — AB109 is a predictable public safety disaster," said Cooley. Additionally, Cooley predicts a spike in crime in the next year.
The question is whether L.A. will tend toward locking people up — a policy the state pursued for 40 years — or seek another way to end what for many is a revolving door of incarceration.