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Prison Crisis: Parole, Rehabilitation, Reentry

Donovan State Prison
Ana Tintocalis
Donovan State Prison
Prison Crisis: Parole, Rehabilitation, Reentry
In the fourth installment of our series on California prisons, we'll be discussing the problems with the parole system, and discussing how to reduce the high recidivism rate through rehabilitation and reentry programs.

Prison Crisis: Inmate Population Costing Millions

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Most people in California prisons will be getting out someday. One of the goals of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is that once a prisoner is released, he or she will go on to live a productive life in society. But that’s not happening as much as it used to. Over the past years, California’s recidivism rate has increased dramatically until now it’s the worst in the nation. Some say that failure is due to the lack of rehabilitation programs in California’s overcrowded prisons. Others point to the state’s strict parole regulations that send parolees back to prison for minor infractions. But since the federal courts have now entered the picture with an order that California correct dangerous prison overcrowding by reducing the prison population, the issue of how well former prisoners are prepared to reenter society is become crucially important. Parole and rehabilitation are the focus in this last part of the KPBS series on California prisons. We have several guests lined up this morning including San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis. But first, KPBS education reporter Ana Tintocalis brings us a feature story from her visit to Donovan State Prison. State budget cuts are forcing the prison to shut down its nationally recognized drug rehab program. Here’s Ana’s report.

ANA TINTOCALIS (KPBS Reporter): Donovan State Prison is located along a dusty dirt road next to the U.S. Mexico border. The massive concrete complex has two sets of barbed wire fences lining the inside and outside perimeters. More than 4700 inmates live here.


MIKE STOUT (California State Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation): This is the yard here, this is the Level 4, Sensitive Needs Yard. And other inmates that, as such, have sensitive needs, there – maybe there could be gang dropouts, you know, your child molesters…

TONTOCALIS: Mike Stout has worked at the prison for about 20 years. He says inmates are doing time for all sorts of criminal activity but what most of them have in common is alcohol or drug abuse. 50-year-old Oscar Mallorca is serving a 15 year prison sentence for killing someone while he was high on PCP.

OSCAR MALLORA (Inmate, Donovan State Prison): I was at a party where drugs were readily available and there was some PCP there that I thought was just marijuana cigarettes and I began smoking it and during the course of that, the PCP had some hallucinogenic effects and what happened afterwards, someone’s life was taken and at that – afterwards, I didn’t even know. I was – I didn’t know until somebody came and told me, hey, you know, this is what happened. The police are looking for you.

TINTOCALIS: Mallorca now accepts responsibility for his actions. He’s clean and sober thanks to a special drug rehab program that Donovan State Prison helped pioneer 20 years ago. Substance abuse counselor Thomas Alexander says it’s more than just a 12-step program. He says it’s a curriculum based approach to cognitive behavioral therapy.

THOMAS ALEXANDER (Substance Abuse Counselor): Guys who get out, the first 24 hours, what they want to do is take their money, get high, get a woman, and then they’re back in jail in no time. So getting prison out of the mind is to get into to a place where you know what you need to do, the types of steps you need to do to be like us.


TINTOCALIS: Alexander says veteran inmates who master the three-year program serve as mentors to help newcomers deal with their emotions. Those who do get out receive post-prison support so they continue treatment. But the program that once put Donovan on the map in California’s prison system is going away. It is one of the casualties as the Department of Corrections slashes $280 million in rehab programs. Inmate Oscar Mallorca says these programs are the only things making a difference in the lives of inmates.

MALLORCA: Sometimes they just need a little support, sometimes they need to know that somebody cares about them, you know? And this is the craziest place to find out that somebody cares about you, yet they’re learning that in here, you know, and it empowers them and gives them the courage to go forth and to engage.

TINTOCALIS: Advocates criticize the deep cuts to prison rehab programs, saying they will only lead to more crime as more inmates are released without the help they need. But Donovan’s associate warden, Elias Contreras, says while the prison’s longtime substance abuse program is going away, it’s being replaced with a 90-day detox program. Veteran inmates will be trained as substance abuse counselors for newcomers, and the prison will rely on community volunteers.

ELIAS CONTRERAS (Associate Warden, Donovan State Prison): I mean, at one point on our registry, we had up to 1400 volunteers coming into this prison and, again, that’s where they’re going to be requesting from the communities to help in these different areas, in substance abuse and education.

TINTOCALIS: But critics point out, if there are no volunteers, there will be no services. They’re also skeptical about the effectiveness of volunteer programs. Counselor Thomas Alexander says Donovan’s program was a model for prisons throughout California because it worked.

ALEXANDER: If they go through a program like Donovan now, the recidivism rate is reduced from 71% to 21%. That’s fact, that’s no secret. It’s evidence-based so this – these are the type of programs that we’re losing.

TINTOCALIS: Alexander and his entire staff must pack up and leave the prison in about a week. A group of veteran inmates who have internalized the rehab program are now trying to salvage what they’ve learned and share it when they can. Ana Tintocalis, KPBS News.

CAVANAUGH: And Ana is in the studio with us here at These Days to tell us a little bit more about the feature report. Ana, what is it specifically about this cognitive behavior therapy program that makes it different from other things that have been tried in the past?

TINTOCALIS: Well, I should say that I’m not an expert on drug rehab programs, however in doing my research for this story, I think 20 years ago what you saw was less informal substance abuse programs taking place. So you might’ve had a mental health professional, a substance abuse counselor working maybe one-on-one with an inmate or a group of inmates and that was really focused on the 12 steps of recovery to get them clean and sober. What’s different at Donovan, it was the first program of its kind to take that one step further and model their program on what’s called the concept of therapeutic communities, and that’s a very clinical term but basically it has three parts. It has that 12-step based program to get inmates – to get them to have a handle on their addiction. But the second part is this cognitive behavioral therapy and it’s a curriculum-based program. Inmates study, they open up books, they do workbooks, they talk about their problems, they answer questions, and it’s all about trying to change the way inmates think about themselves, the people around them and, really, the world around them and to respond and react to adversity in more constructive ways. And then the third part of it is this kind of mentor programs so you have veteran inmates coming together with newcomers inside the prison, these groups of inmates, and they talk about their problems, they delve into their past, they learn how to trust one another. So it was really the first program of its kind to be very much more comprehensive and designed to really work on the inmate and the individual from the inside out.

CAVANAUGH: Now, as you say, however, this program is going away. It’s been nationally recognized. People in your report said that it’s cut down recidivism rates from 70 to 20%. And I wonder what the concerns are in the prison with this program, this successful program, being eliminated.

TINTOCALIS: Well, there’s a lot of concern and I even heard the concern from prison guards and officials who work at the prison because they know it’s been making a difference. Now I can’t say this is the end-all, be-all, you know, that this is the program that’s going to solve all their problems but it is making a difference. As you said, the substance abuse counselor in my story, Thomas Alexander, it’s proven that inmates who do not go through this type of program, they’re 71% more likely to return to prison or to jail, to commit a crime. Those who do successfully go through the program are 21% more likely. So, you know, I’m not saying that this will solve the problem but that is a big reduction in the number of people who are recitivating (sic) if they don’t have any help at all.

CAVANAUGH: And as we’ve been reporting on the program all week, this is just part of the cutbacks in rehabilitation programs that state prisons have had to endure. Is there any chance that this particular program may still be saved?

TINTOCALIS: I don’t think so. When I talked to the officials at the prison, it was pretty much a done deal. And, in fact, the counselors at the substance abuse center there at the prison, you know, they have their calendars in their office and they had the October 19th circled with black marker because October 19th is the day they shut down. And, you know, they had Black Monday written on the calendar because that’s when they cease to exist, and they’re ready to pack up their stuff. They’re looking for jobs elsewhere. And the – So what happens to the inmates, right? So the veteran inmates who have really, like I said, internalized this program, they’re trying to put together a proposal to take to the warden to try to assume the responsibility of the program and carry it on as best they can without the formal structure of substance abuse staff and the outside organization.

CAVANAUGH: Where are they in that process?

TINTOCALIS: They’re in the process of putting the proposal together. When I was there, actually the gentleman I profiled in my story, Oscar Mallorca, he’s heading up that proposal, so it’s a lot of writing. It’s almost like grant writing, you know, trying to put this draft together and bring it to the warden so we’ll find out about that, I would think, in the next few weeks.

CAVANAUGH: Ana, thank you.

TINTOCALIS: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with KPBS education reporter Ana Tintocalis. When we return from a short break, we’ll continue our discussion about rehabilitation programs and parole in California’s prisons. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. This week our series on California’s overcrowded prisons has focused on many topics from healthcare to the Three Strikes law. Today, we’re focusing on the preparation and precautions taken when prisoners get out of prison, the topics of rehabilitation and parole. And I’d like to welcome my guests for the rest of the hour. Bonnie Dumanis is San Diego County District Attorney. And, Bonnie, welcome to These Days.

BONNIE DUMANIS (San Diego County District Attorney): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Robert Ambroselli is acting director of the Division of Adult Parole Operations for California. Robert, welcome. Good morning, Robert.

ROBERT AMBROSELLI (Acting Director, California State Division of Adult Parole Operations): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. And Ryken Grattet is sociology professor at the University of California Davis. Ryken was principal investigator on a 2008 report titled “Parole Violations and Revocations in California.” Ryken, good morning.

RYKEN GRATTET (Sociology Professor, University of California Davis): Thank you. Thanks.

CAVANAUGH: We invite our listeners to join the conversation. Should rehabilitation programs in prison be a priority? Do you think parole requirements can be loosened without endangering the public? Give us a call with your questions and your comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Bonnie, I would like to start out by getting your reaction to Ana’s piece that we just heard about that rehabilitation program that’s ending at Donovan.

DUMANIS: I think it was a great piece and it accurately reflects, you know, some of the needs of those in prison to become healthy and productive members of society. I think one of the things that gets lost on most people is that 95% of those in prison are going to come out of prison and so in order to deal with that effectively, we need to make sure they get the tools so that they don’t, when they come out, revictimize people.

CAVANAUGH: And, Robert, is it frustrating for you as the Director of Parole Operations for California to hear something like that, a successful program that’s being discontinued?

AMBROSELLI: Well, I think in light of the crisis that we have, the financial crisis that we have, I think it’s just a reality of what we’re facing. Any time programs are reduced, it certainly places more challenges on offenders being released that are more prepared. But it’s also a reality of the situation that we have currently going on in California.

CAVANAUGH: And, Ryken, would you agree?

GRATTET: Yeah. Yeah, we’re looking at about a twenty – a $280 million cut in recent – in the recent budget for rehabilitation in the California Correctional system, and that’s really going to have a huge impact and the segment really kind of illustrates, on a micro level, what that’s going to look like.

CAVANAUGH: Robert, as Director of Adult Parole Operations for California, the number of rehabilitation programs that have been decreased because of budget cuts, do you see that actually affecting your role or the parole board’s role as people get released into the public?

AMBROSELLI: Well, I think related to parole programs, I do want to be clear that we do have programs out in the community that helps parolees deal with, you know, various levels of their needs. But, like I said, in this situation right now with the fiscal crisis that we have, you know, a reduction is not – in those services is not surprising. I think what parole is doing is continuing to at least provide the services that we have with the programs that are available through the contracts that we have out there but, more importantly, is starting to shift its focus on risk assessments, decision making instruments, and reducing its caseloads, which, in some cases, delivers better supervision on our offender population and provides the right services to the parolees that are out there. So I think we’re just becoming fiscally aware of the situation that we have and that we just can’t continue doing business as usual. So I think we’re just basically maybe honing our skills and focusing with the resources that we have.

CAVANAUGH: We’re going to be talking more about the risk assessments that you just mentioned, Robert, but I want to know, Ryken, I want to get your take on an overview about this because we’ve been talking about the state’s recidivism rate being the highest in the nation and we’re trying to reduce overcrowding, so when we hear stories about rehabilitation programs that have been cut, can the state actually, in reality, reduce overcrowding if it keeps cutting its rehabilitation programs in prison?

GRATTET: Well, I mean, I think – I mean, I think in many ways the larger perspective here is that since about 2005 the department has been trying to expand rehabilitation and its programs and there’s been some very notable sort of successes in that, one of which is the 618 Program, that I hope we’ll get a chance to talk about. But there’s really kind of a need for more kind of programs and services. Some estimates are that about 60 to 80% of parolees going out there have some level of, you know, substance abuse dependency. Another 20%, some of which might be overlapping, also have mental health issues. And, you know, quite frankly, there’s just not enough support out there in the community for successful reintegration of those groups.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Bonnie, we have a local program in San Diego County. The District Attorney’s office is completely involved in it. It’s called the San Diego County Prisoner Reentry Program. And, first of all, how does that work?

DUMANIS: Well, the SB618 Program, as Ryken mentioned, is a program that our office helped write the law to authorize this kind of program. Vaughn Jeffery from our office and then J.J. Anderson took the lead and really made it work. It works in partnership with Donovan State Prison and also CIW, the women’s institute, to look at people who are agreeing, in essence, after they plead guilty, to go to prison but before they do that, they work with a multidisciplinary team to come up with a life plan. And that life plan looks at the needs that they need to address in order to make it on the outside. So we have somebody from the prison system who does classification in the probation department, working with probation, that person then let’s us know about the level of risk for the prison system. We also have community providers working together. Everybody working to make this plan. The judge then basically blesses that plan and the person goes to Donovan—we’ll use that as an example—Prison where that person gets a case manager. And Donovan is all men, of course, so that case manager then works with that life plan and gets the kind of treatment, mental health, substance abuse, in order to prepare that person. And then within six months of their release, a case manager from the outside community comes in, works with the prison case manager to make sure that we’ve updated the life plan and get those things working out in the community. And as mentioned in Ana’s report, I think it was Thomas Alexander said within 24 hours, most of the prisoners, they get $200.00 and a bus ticket, and within 24 hours they’re using that money for drugs. Well, our community people go in and pick up the person, so they don’t pass ‘go,’ they go right to the placement. And then there are wraparound services that, while they’re on parole, last up until about 18 months of aftercare. It’s got about a 15% or actually 14% recidivism rate right now but it’s early, and SANDAG is evaluating us.

CAVANAUGH: Now, just to be clear, if someone actually goes to trial, they’re really not eligible for this program but if they plead guilty they – this starts almost right away…

DUMANIS: Exactly.

CAVANAUGH: …as soon as the judge gives the go-ahead. Now I’m wondering, are there certain types of offenses that are excluded from this program?

DUMANIS: Yes, in essence, any violence is excluded at this point. Remember, this is a beginning. We began in 2005 with the legislation and really got it up and running in 2006. And we’ve had over 500 participants. Only a couple of hundred have come out, though, since then and we’re tracking them. But the reason – I mean, really if we looked at all the people that were coming into our community, it would be a tremendous amount and we can’t handle that right now so we are taking like six a week into this program, although we’re going to be the subject of cuts as well and, you know, as Robert mentioned, I think we’re at a triage state within the prison system and we have to look at. So we’re looking at low level offenders, and one of the things that they use in probation and assessment is with the Department of Corrections is the assessment tool, the compass, which I’m sure that Robert could talk more about. It’s a evidence-based assessment tool that’s proven very effective to show the criminogenic risks of the person and we, in SB618 also use an ASI, which is for alcohol and drugs, and a vocational assessment as well. So – But this is one time the sheriff, Sheriff Gore, the DA, all of us, the community roundtable, the faith-based community, we’ve all been working together to make sure that we cut the recidivism rate, which can’t, frankly, get much worse. It was 70% and so anything is better than that. But it’s nice to have a partnership, the defense attorneys, you know, we’re all working together because we know, in the long run, if they get a job, get productive, get rid of their, you know, or work on their substance abuse issue, that in the long run we’re not going to have as many victims and we’re going to have a paying taxpayer member of society.

CAVANAUGH: And, Ryken, the 618 Program down here, the prison reentry program that San Diego County is administering, is that like 618 programs across the state?

GRATTET: Well, I’m actually not familiar with other programs around the state but I think that the model is really the kind of – in a way, sort of the gold standard of what the department has been trying to move towards which is really kind of, you know, before the, you know, the inmate comes in – the offender comes into the prison system, there’s a sort of rundown of what their issues are so that – and then that is connected directly to the kinds of program placements that they get when they’re in the prison and then there’s a continuity between what happens in the prison and when they get out on parole because there’s been a bit of a siloing in the – in recent history where the locals sort of do their thing and then the person comes with the big fat file into the system, into the prison system, and then they figure out what they want to do with them and then, more or less, when they go out on parole, some of the same thing happens. So there hasn’t been a great continuity across these different parts of the system and so people’s needs aren’t kept track of, the – there’s no case management that kind of channels them across, so the model is really what, you know, what I think they’re trying to aim for and I think that that’s what’s been sort of shown to be sort of the best way proceed nationally so the question is how can they scale that up to really, you know, see a kind of aggregate level impact, you know, on the recidivism structure.

CAVANAUGH: Right, and, Bonnie, what exactly – what kind of rehabilitation programs comes along with the package of this reentry program? What exactly do the prisoners get trained in in prison?

DUMANIS: Within the prison…


DUMANIS: …it is substance abuse and there are cognitive components to that. There are vocational, mental health issues are dealt with, literacy issues, all the – You know, they get a GED, they participate in programs. One of the things I wanted to point out is that there are no other programs under SB618; we’re the only county that has…

CAVANAUGH: Oh, we’re the only county. I see.

DUMANIS: …done it. We auth – when the legislature authorized it and the governor signed it, there was a provision for three. We actually wanted it statewide but the legislature cut it to three, and no one, although they’ve been watching us, come down and talked to us, none of them have started one. The only other prison reentry program is in Santa Barbara and that’s a little bit different. But I think the important part is that the programs that they’re getting in prison as well as the programs we’re putting them into the community are evidence-based programs. This – You hear law enforcement, the defense, you know, the rehab, the community providers, CDCI, we’re all on the same page here because we’ve been dealing with this for a long time. There are over 22 studies that have been done, the little Hoover Report, the Deukmejian report, that all point to the same things that we all know work, and that is, evidence-based assessment, evidence-based programming, and services that continue in the community and continue with an aftercare component. The longer you can keep them in the programming and working on those skills, the more likely you are to have success.

CAVANAUGH: That’s San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, and she’s talking about the San Diego County Prisoner Reentry program. We’re talking about the topics of rehabilitation and parole in California state prisons. My other two guests are Robert Ambroselli, Acting Director of the Division of Adult Parole Operations for California, and Ryken Grattet is a sociology professor at the University of California Davis. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727, and let’s take a call right now. Susan is calling us from Chula Vista. Good morning, Susan. Welcome to These Days.

SUSAN (Caller, Chula Vista): Thank you very much. I’m glad that you took my call. I’m actually a former teacher from Donovan so I’ve, firsthand, seen a lot of the things that you’re talking about. I’ve seen the tremendous cuts, I’ve seen how it affects the inmates, I’ve actually worked with 618 participants, and it’s very frustrating. Probably a lot of people that would have benefited from listening to this series this week don’t listen to NPR, they’re listening on the other side of the dial unfortunately. But I really have enjoyed your week-long series. I have to say that – well, I could probably talk forever on all the things you’ve talked about. But how important the rehabilitation part is, that when the guys get their GEDs and when they have a skill to learn, most of them want to and it would really help them and really – you have a lot of people that work at the prisons who care and want them to be able to provide these services and yet every time this sort of budget issue happens, they cut the things that actually will help the system and it’s kind of frustrating. I worked also as a teacher out in the community working with children, so I have a lot of friends that are actual schoolteachers and we kind of get into these debates about, well, there’s no money for the schools, why should anybody care about what money is going to the prisons? Well, I tried to explain to them how, in the end, it’s all very closely related.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you, Susan. Thank you for your comments. Thank you for your kind words. I want to take another call if we can. David is calling from La Mesa. Good morning, David. Welcome to These Days.

DAVID (Caller, La Mesa): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, how can we help you?

DAVID: I’ve worked with convicts since 1977. My credentials included – I taught GED and the arts at the county jail. I taught at the Metropolitan Correctional Center where I begun (sic) an arts program. And I worked with the Witness Protection Program and I worked at Donovan State Prison for about 20 years. I just recently retired. 618 is a joke, it’s a political football. Because of 618, the stuff, the arts and corrections program, because they needed space, 618 inmates cannot do any wrong because they’re being forced to make these people a success so the inmates who are caught doing drugs and such are not busted because it’s a political football.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, well, David, thank you. Thank you for that, and thank you for telling us all about your experience within the prison. So it’s not a success with everybody just yet. I’m wondering, though, Ryken, if I may ask you a question. You know, we spoke with two officials from Donovan State Prison earlier this week where David worked as a volunteer and as a teacher. They were hopeful that volunteer and mentoring programs could take up the slack of some of the rehabilitation cuts that they’re experiencing. And I’m wondering if you’re familiar with what role volunteer efforts do play in prison.

GRATTET: Well, you know, volunteers are really important, you know, for helping out in programs. But, you know, the research literature on evidence-based programming, you know, typically emphasizes a fairly narrow range of program models and very frequently off – sort of requires trained professional staff to implement them. And, you know, that’s often not what you get when you rely entirely on community volunteers. And I would also say that some of the concerns that the caller made about the programming, how it’s functioning, I mean, in some ways we’re waiting for a program evaluation wherein some of those issues, if they’re really present, are going to be revealed, and that’s what’s sort of different about this kind of approach, is that ideally program are – programs are coupled with the research element that helps you improve them or if they’re really not functioning as expected, to change them more fundamentally. So, you know, and the volunteer programs and the arts programs and the other – a lot of the other kinds of programs, the 12-step programs that used to predominate, those have not – either not been subjected to the kind of, you know, research assessment that really – or they’ve been shown in research that they’re really not contributing greatly to the reduction of recidivism, so, you know, there’s a million different things we can do with offenders and there’s a very small subset of things that seem to be actually effective. And so that’s where you have to put your resources, that’s where the building blocks of a good menu of rehabilitative options have to come from.

CAVANAUGH: And, Bonnie, I wanted to ask you, you are obviously very enthusiastic about our county’s prison reentry program, but have you heard criticisms of 618? Anything that David mentioned?

DUMANIS: I haven’t heard that, although I do know that they had to make changes within Donovan for this programming, a special yard, an area, and that sort of thing. But as Ryken said, SANDAG is doing the evaluation for us. We’ve had a preliminary one and I think we expect another one coming out, and it has identified some problems. I don’t remember all of them. But that’s what an evaluation is for, and it’s an assessment like a self-assessment for all of us involved. We are continuing to work to make it as best program we can have but certainly it’s shown very positive results. You know, when people get into the community, addicts are going to relapse. We understand that. But it’s how you deal with that relapse that is going to turn them around by giving them whatever, maybe a sanction but more intense, you know, rehab or treatment and that sort of thing. I wanted to just mention, though, that one of the premises behind SB618 and a part of the evaluation is the cost savings that we will see as a result of this because really why our prison system and the – it’s now $9 billion, I think, or 10 is because we – everybody in California’s on parole. And even the low level offenders, if they violate by not reporting, by moving residence, you know, those kinds of – or a relapse, they’re sent back to prison. And so that bed – you know, a year in prison is about 49,000, 50,000 and a year in this program is about five to 10,000. So we are going to be experiencing savings and that’s why we have been focusing and that’s one of the things – The more people, actually, we have in the program, the most cost savings we’ll see because of the volume in the long run.

CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break. When we return, we’re going to be changing the focus a little bit onto parole and the kind of requirements that people have to fulfill when they’re out from prison on parole. You’re listening to These Days. And I want to let everyone know that tomorrow at 10:00 a.m., we will be airing an hour long special on California’s prison crisis. The special will feature highlights from this week-long series that you’ve been hearing right here on These Days. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. We’ll return in just a few moments here on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. And we’re continuing our series on California prisons with a focus today on rehabilitation and, now, on parole. I want to reintroduce my guests. Bonnie Dumanis, San Diego County District Attorney. Robert Ambroselli, is Acting Director of the Division of Adult Parole Operations for California, and Ryken Grattet, sociology professor at the University of California Davis. Ryken was principal investigator of a report titled “Parole Violations and Revocations in California.” And we’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Robert, I would really like you to give us sort of an overview about the way California handles parole, and I know that that’s a very large question but I wonder if you could explain it in a way that people not inside the bureaucracy would understand. How does our parole system work? We’ve already heard from Bonnie that every felon who leaves prison is on parole, is that correct?

AMBROSELLI: Yes, Bonnie’s correct. Actually, maybe I’ll back up just a little bit…


AMBROSELLI: …and explain a little bit about probation and parole because I think sometimes there’s even a little confusion about that.

CAVANAUGH: Great. Great.

AMBROSELLI: You know, probation, so we’ll start with that, is imposed by the court and it allows the offender to be supervised in the community for a specific period of time. And that supervision is monitored, excuse me, by a probation officer and that person reports the conduct, positive or negative, to the judge who then determines the outcome of the supervision, who either completes it or revokes it or whatever. So you have the court overseeing that person’s time while they’re out on the street. Parole, on the other hand, is the period that you serve after you have been released from prison. So, typically, one serves their prison sentence, is released for a period of supervision that lasts about three years, and they’re supervised by a parole agent. And that parole agent, much like the parole officer, has the responsibility of doing the same types of things, doing home calls and taking drug tests and getting the person into the various programs. However, the parole agent reports to the paroling authority, which is the Board of Parole Hearings in California and they’re the administrative trier of facts. So the offender comes out from prison – so to be on parole, you have to have served time in prison or at least sentenced to state prison to come out and then the parole agent then assumes the responsibility of supervising that person.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Robert, if I may, one of the problems that we’ve heard talked about this week on this series we’ve been doing is the fact that it’s very easy to get violated once you’re out on parole and that sends you back to prison. This is something that the state legislature is now looking at and trying to rewrite some of those parole regulations, is that what you understand?

AMBROSELLI: Yes, and actually I think what we have, without getting too deep into the rest of the parole process, I’d like to maybe cover that and also some of the programs that we do have and how we’re dealing with that because I think that’s probably one of the most important things that we have going on. For starters, the proposed legislation reduces our caseloads but it’s not just about fewer offenders to supervise because that just means, you know, in most people’s eyes, well, you’ve just – if you’ve been doing the same thing, all you have to do is the same thing with fewer people, and that’s the last thing that the department wants to do is continue doing the same processes. There are several things that we’re going to do as we take advantage of this opportunity. For starters, we’re implementing the use of risk assessment tools, and those tools are developed in concert with other organizations that have helped – or organizations that have helped other states develop those types of assessments that help us determine where an offender fits as – in the possibility of being recidivist again. So that helps us get a baseline for that offender as opposed to a static type of offense. So, for instance, people just assume that if somebody commits a certain type of crime, let’s assume it’s, you know, burglary, that they’re serious in their mind based on that type of offense as opposed to maybe some of the other factors that are in that person’s life. So these tools maybe strip away the subjectivity of someone’s personal bias in assessing risk and it uses a more scientific and clinical approach saying, you know, we’ve looked at 100,000 other offenders that commit these types of crimes and by those patterns, here’s the potential that this person…


AMBROSELLI: …may do those things again. So that’s one leg of how the department is moving in a different direction. And the second piece, and equally important, is our decision making matrix. And that, I think, will answer the question about how easy it is for offenders to go back or at least in some folks’ mind how fast people go back.


AMBROSELLI: In this matrix, if you think of maybe two axes, the first being risk of the person and then the second being an instrument that takes into consideration the risk of the offender as well as the type of violation that the person committed and then gives the parole agent a response that is either consistent with the risk or at least the severity of the violation of parole based on a pretty complex system. But basically it tells the agent, these are the options that you should exercise.


AMBROSELLI: And that agent, in many cases – You know, let’s assume you’re a brand new agent or you don’t have the experience or you’re an agent that’s been around for some time rather than just going through your own system of decision making, you now have an instrument that says these are the things that you have to consider before you consider returning the person back to custody.

CAVANAUGH: Ryken, I – Robert, I want to stop you there because I want to get Ryken’s reaction to this. Ryken, you’re hearing what Robert is saying, changes in these evaluation systems of, you know, stopping perhaps violating parolees quite so regularly for minor infractions. Do you think that this new evaluation technique may work?

GRATTET: Yeah, I mean, I think this is a major sort of change in the way that parole does business, I think. And, you know, just to sketch a little bit further what Robert said, the system that was in place sort of prior to this is what we call sort of in the research very offense-based. So if you’ve committed a very serious and violent crime, you’re assumed to have – pose actually a relatively high risk to – and this sort of conforms with, I think, common parlance, how we understand offenders. But, in fact, many people who engage in relatively bad behavior often actually pose lower risk than people who engage in burglaries and drug related crimes to, you know, to involve themselves in other later activities. So there’s sort of some stereotypes about offenses that Robert was sort of alluding to and that perhaps…


GRATTET: …a better way to proceed would be to use kind of state of the art, you know, risk assessment techniques to try and understand who actually really poses the greatest risk to reoffend and respond to offenders according to that risk.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Bonnie, it’s very difficult politically to make changes like this to the parole system, isn’t it? I mean, people are concerned about public safety and I know that the Garrido case up near Sacramento where that man held a young girl that he kidnapped for years in his backyard, that story broke right when the state legislature was assessing whether or not to make changes in the parole regulations and all of a sudden it became a political football. So I want to know where does the District Attorney’s office stand on changes in the state’s parole system?

DUMANIS: Well, I think we—I would—not want to see high risk and violent criminals released without parole. But I think what is happening, the law that was just passed by both houses does take away, in essence, the parole of low level, nonviolent, non-serious, non-sex offense…


DUMANIS: …cases and really makes it a bank parole so that the only reason somebody would return is if you file a new charge because they’ve committed a new charge, and that will relieve some of the pressure, as Robert was saying, so the parole agent will have the ability to focus on those high risk, those violent, and really, in effect, triage and will be able to help public safety. So I supported the effort for that, although it’s not something any of us in law enforcement really like but we recognize that we have to be part of the solution as well, and we are in a state of emergency because of the budget. But I am concerned with making short term budget decisions that are going to have an impact on long term policy and so we’re all being – trying to work together to make sure the public is safe at the same time that we are reducing the budget and making sure that we’re looking at the long haul, not just today. And so I think the changes that they made weren’t bad. They also made some changes to give people who are participating in programs credit for those programs, although it’s going to be hard now that they’ve reduced that. And they’ve made, you know, some other changes. One of the changes is the ability to have a reentry court so that we can treat locally but I do want to say that anyone that’s in prison now has had many opportunities in the community with treatment and rehab too, so we’re all working, though, to make the changes necessary to save money in the long run and save lives in the long run, both victims in the community and those who are coming out of prison.

CAVANAUGH: You know, Robert, I’m sorry that I cut you off there. We are getting a little close on time, though. I’m wondering, you know, giving the parole officers these tools, these matrixes – matrices, these risk assessment abilities to evaluate when a parolee has actually violated and should be sent back or, you know, this is not such a terrible thing and the person should be able to remain out on parole, it sounds as if, therefore, more people are going to be out on parole instead of in prison, so can your office handle the extra caseload?

AMBROSELLI: Well, first I think Bonnie’s right on point about the responsibilities and how we see this, and it’s been a – it’s just – it’s a response, at least in our view, of how to better deal with offenders. And also, I know she talked about public safety, and I want to be clear that public safety comes above and beyond everything in our department. And so even with these types of instruments to help agents and guide agents, I think to use your terms, a tool, that’s exactly what this is. This is an instrument by where we create a framework for a discussion between the unit supervisor and the agent to make steps or at least take steps toward putting that offender in a different program as opposed to possibly incarcerating him. But that does not mean that the agent does not have that option, or the supervisor. Any time an agent or the supervisor’s personal, professional experience dictates that something is not right, just like a gauge on your vehicle, just because it says it’s low on gas doesn’t mean you keep driving into the desert, you know that at a certain point your own experience dictates that you stop for gas. The same thing happens with these types of instruments, that your professional judgment overrides those processes. And then we record them and then we learn from them and, more importantly, we study them independently. For instance, this one happens to be being reviewed by University of California Irvine and out of those studies come changes and we learn from them, and then we also move forward into making the changes that they see are important to getting these folks, you know, more used to – our agents more used to using these instruments. So I just want to be clear that it’s always public safety that comes first and these instruments just help our staff make sometimes better decisions if they’re inexperienced or sometimes don’t know that those programs are out there.

CAVANAUGH: Certainly. Ryken, I’m wondering, will these changes in parole make a significant impact in reducing prison overcrowding in your opinion?

GRATTET: I think it’s very much dependent upon how they – As Robert described, there’s the parole division which, you know, has the parole agents, and then there’s the parole board, and they’re really separate entities. And it – And the innovations that Robert’s talking about have been adopted in the parole division but the decision about whether or not to revoke an individual’s parole really lies with the parole board and so there’s been an enormous amount of dialogue about the, you know, the parole board, you know, being responsive towards this violation matrix, this decision making matrix, so if that – And that’s very promising, I think. And if it turns out that the board really looks at the matrix and says, okay, well, the decision making tool here says we should put this person in a program, that a good proportion of the time they put them in the program instead of return them to custody. If that – if this new tool becomes a means for clearer, more consistent communication between the parole division and the parole board, then I think, ideally, what we’ll see is less people being sent into prison…


GRATTET: …where, by the way, they get very little in the way of…

CAVANAUGH: We have to end it there, Ryken. I’m so sorry to cut you off, but we have to end it there. Ryken Grattet, Robert Ambroselli, Bonnie Dumanis, thank you all so much for participating in the program today.

AMBROSELLI: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And I want to let everyone know that you can join us tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. for a KPBS special about this week’s prison series. It’s called “California’s Prison Crisis.” It will be aired right after Editors Roundtable at 10:00 a.m. tomorrow here on KPBS. Stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up just after a few minutes here on KPBS.

KPBS has created a public safety coverage policy to guide decisions on what stories we prioritize, as well as whose narratives we need to include to tell complete stories that best serve our audiences. This policy was shaped through months of training with the Poynter Institute and feedback from the community. You can read the full policy here.