California Needs Systemic Approaches to Sentencing

Mar. 25, 2012

An ACLU Report (described in two articles in the Face Book Column on the far right),  points to the failure of California’s Realignment Plan (under AB109), to provide incentives to counties that reduce the numbers of persons incarcerated in county jail. The report describes the  state’s dismembering its Prison-Industrial Complex, while supporting the development of a Jail-Industrial Complex. It’s argues that counties that develop successful “alternatives to incarceration”, and/or send a small percentage of non-violent offenders to prison are penalized as proportionally larger funds are provided to counties that  have neither adequate jail facilities or effective alternatives to custody. The counter argument is a simple admission that counties that have not used alternatives in the past and relied heavily on state prison to house less serious offenders, need immediate resources to build an infrastructure capable of working with the returning offenders, both in and out of custody (on the left; a systemic sentencing circle, JTauber, circa 1999, National Drug Court Institute Monograph Series, No. 3, “Reentry Drug Courts”)

California needs to deal both with the lack of adequate jail resources, while creating incentives for counties to develop alternatives to incarceration. One way to accomplish that, is to develop effective risk/needs assesssment tools that can distinguish between those who are a violent and/or high-risk offenders and those who do not pose a danger to the community. Risk/Needs Assessments, once validated, provide an scientific basis for determining the risk of offenders to the community. Working with such tools, a county’s criminal justice system ought to be able to create a systemic approach to the convicted offender, that provides appropriate sentencing tracks that reflect an offender’s degree of risk as well as their criminogenic needs. In the future, counties that develop effective sentencing systems, used in the supervision and rehabilitation of felons, that reduce the jail population, ought to receive substantial financial incentives from the state ( California already has a successful state program that rewards probation departments for reductions in probationer recidivism)

We have developed evidence based practices for the sentencing of offenders (based on voluminous research), but are still reticent to apply those practices where they will do the most good, in making sentencing decisions. Rational approaches to sentencing that provide different levels of supervision, treatment, rehabilitation, and assistance for felons are attainable and in effect in some states and jurisdictions (more on that later).



Cal AB109 forces Counties to Care for their Own

Mar. 5, 2012

The two articles posted on my Facebook Page ( California Prisons Address Overcrowding, Remove Last Of Nearly 20,000 Extra BedsCalifornia prisons clearing out – sacbee.comfound to immediate right), speak volumes about the success of California’s prison reduction plan. Known statewide as AB 109, the realigment strategy returns what are called “triple nons” (non-violent, non-serious, non-sex-offenders) to local jurisdictions to deal with. It also requires local courts to sentence the same basic low risk offender class to local custody or alternatives to incarceration. The result has been the elimination of temporary beds and a reduction of almost 20,000 state prisoners since October 1st when the new law took effect.

Vilified by many California criminal justice professionals, it is clear that Governor Brown’s strategy is working and for all the right reasons. Critics argue that we are returning prisoners to counties that are unable to keep them incarcerated them and therefore risk releasing them into the community. And that is the point. If local communities and their judiciary wish to incarcerate an offender for a protracted period of time, it should be their burden, finacially and otherwise, not the state’s.

Consider what has been the existing system in California and elsewhere. Counties with limited jail facilities and financial resources have dumped tens of thousands of sentenced felon into the state  prison system. Between 1970 and 2006, the California Prison system increased more than 700%, largely because counties could send unwanted anti-social offenders out of county for long prison terms, the longer the better. Looking at a Callifornia Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation documents, largely rural and financially strapped counties send the highest percentage of offenders to prison, and of course that is the problem.

What the Governor’s plan has done, is force local communities to accept responsibility  for their own less serious felons (once again, those who are in triple non status), forcing them to sentence offenders to more appropriate terms of incarceration and releasing those into the community who pose the least danger to the community. What is missing from this successful equation, is a court-based rehabilitation sysytem, that could seamlessly reintroduce offenders into the community through supervision, monitoring, and rehabilitation services that would give the newly released offender the opportunity to successfully reintegrate into the community.

President of the American Judge’s Association Speaks Out

Judge Kevin Burke, president of the American Judge’s Association, recently wrote a blog describing “the closing of the highly successful San Francisco Parole Reentry Court”. He wrote his blog, “San Francisco Reentry Court: May it Rest in Peace”, after reading a New  York Times article describing the closing of the Reentry Court  (see “Parole and Probation Courts in San Francisco are Closing After Budget Cuts” ). Judge Burke commenting on that New York Times article, wrote, “The story speaks volumes about two things: (1) budget cuts to courts have real consequences and (2) there are emerging new ways that courts can reduce recidivism.

Let me speak to Judge Burke’s first point. In times of adversity, it is the problem-solving courts that are the first victims of cost-cutting. The argument, of course, is that the programs cost too much in resources and staffing. It’s an argument that has been debunked by numerous studies done on drug courts and other problem solving courts over the last twenty years (A recent national study by the Urban Institute found that for every $1 invested in Drug Court, taxpayers save as much as $3.36 in avoided criminal justice costs alone. When considering other cost offsets such as savings from reduced victimization and health care service utilization, studies have shown benefits range up to $12 for every $1 invested). It simply is no longer acceptable to cut one of the most beneficial, but least political aspect of the courts. Resources must be found to sustain and expand these critical programs.

Some argue that the case for reentry courts is less than compelling. That dealing with parolees and ex-prisoners is an executive and not a judicial function, and that they are best left to the jurisdiction of Corrections and Parole. But courts in California, as well as other states are getting into the prisoner supervison business,whether they like it or not. In California, legislation took effect last October, requiring county courts to sentence offenders (who would have previously been sent to prison) to county jail and then to supervise them in the community. States like California ( and those that will surely follow), now have the jurisdiction and the responsibility to rehabilitate and supervise the high-risk offender that are under their jurisdiction.

As San Francisco’s Reentry Court Judge over its fifteen month demonstration period, I have my own perspective on these issue. We recognized the danger and attempted to limit court costs. We reduced staffing to a bare minimum, using a retired part-time judge and clerk, and doing without a district attorney and a reporter (except when requested by defense counsel). We held drug relapse, cogntive therapy and other program sessions in the court building and in many case, the closed courtroom itself to reduce administrative costs ( “A minimalist reentry courts for recessionary times”). After our best efforts at reducing costs, we were still closed when the budget was cut.

What’s is of greatest interest, is Judge Burke’s second point; “there are emerging new ways that courts can reduce recidivism”. The success of the San Francisco Parole Reentry court has been documented (One Year San Francisco Reentry Court Report Card). The real success of reentry courts lies not in their cost savings, but in their  potential for salvaging damaged lives, restoring them to their communities and families, and preventing their future “return to prison”. The thing to keep in mind is that there are new ways for the court to deal with the returning prison offender, and that we have a moral obligation to investigate, develop, implement, and evaluate those court-based alternatives, as we have so successfully done in the past for drug courts.

New York Times Article on San Francisco Reentry Court

The New York Times published the following article on Sunday, October 8, 2011, on the closing of the highly successful San Francisco Parole Reentry Court. (see:  “Parole and Probation Courts in San Francisco are Closing After Budget Cuts” )

The San Francisco Parole Reentry Court was part of a six county statutory pilot program, that gave the San Francisco Superior Court jurisdiction and authority for the first time to determine parole conditions, including rehabilitation and supervision as well as sanctions for parole violations. It was not an easy program to start, because of the reluctance of many to take on the supervision of parolees (an executive function in California and most of the states). As it turns out, we were merely anticipating the inevitable sentencing realignment in California, that would return a majority of prisoners to county jurisdiction.

The SFPRC enjoyed the full support of the San Francisco court until this past summer, when drastic reductions in state funding caused many California Courts to reassess their ability to provide rehabilitation services. San Francisco was one of the worst hit, with over 6 million dollars of debt and prospects of closing down 25 of 63 courtrooms countywide. The court determined that the Parole Reentry court (as well as two smaller reentry courts; a  juvenile reentry court and a probation reentry court) would be closed down, because they did not provide a core function of the court. Focusing on what they considered to be their survival as a court, the San Francisco Superior Court decided to get out of the “reentry court” business. 

A Reentry Court Judge Looks Back

Aug. 9,2011


I can write best about my own reentry court in San Francisco. I can’t compare it to any other  California Pilot Parole Reentry Court, because all six counties with pilot parole reentry courts have taken different paths. One has built its court with participants who have been been placed  on probation for new offenses and start out their program in county jail, others built their programs based on the proven track record of their other existing collaborative courts, another creates an informal atmosphere where participants are ushered into the court room personally by the judge to sit across a table from  judge and team members.

I find this a particularly good time to write about our program as we are in the tenth month of program development,  and we have learned a good deal about the reentry court process. We have chosen to build our program from the ground up, and not rely on existing structures. That has forced us to reconsider conventional drug court wisdom  and rely on our own expertise, experience, and importantly, evidence based research in building our program.

It’s also a good time to look back, because there may not be a San Francisco Parole Reentry Court, nor any California Parole Reentry Court after Governor Brown’s “Prison Realignment” on July 1st. This is  hard to accept as we have worked hard  building a program based on “evidence-based principles” and an evolving community  environment and have watched it mature into a successful reentry court model . These are difficult times for reentry courts and the california criminal justice system in general. We hope for the best.

“Thinking For A Change” in Reentry Court

March 25th/ Part 4

The information found in the previous article is important and can be read in full through their links. They are well-written descriptions of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. (see also; Cognitive Behavioral Treatment: A Review and Discussion for Corrections Professionals, Harvey Milkman, Kenneth Wanberg, NIC 2007 ). In this short description of one “Thinking for a Change” training (T4C), they provide a backdrop for my reentry court team’s four day  training (taught by Juliana Taymans, one of the co-authors of T4C )

I wasn’t one of the trainees, but audited most of the training for twelve San Francisco case managers held in my courtroom.. I can say that it was well worth the time, effort, and resources involved. My impression was that the trainees thoroughly enjoyed the material and mastering the skills involved, which included problem-solving in their own lives. While the curriculum could not be used for everyone (as it appeared to require some level of introspection and sophistication), it certainly could be effective with a large cohort of parolees.
The lessons were formal (often read verbatim from a training manual), emersing participants in role playing, film  and other engaging techniques. It should be noted that the number of trainers required (initially 2 per group), the number of group participants (10-12), the number of sessions required (20-22), and  the length of sessions (1 hour or more) make delivery of this therapy somewhat problematic. But I found the techniques taught  grow on me (surprisingly finding myself using them in my everyday life). We intend to begin at least three group sessions for parole reentry participants in April. We’ll let you know how it  all works out.
Thinking for a Change (T4C) is an integrated, cognitive behavior change program for offenders that includes cognitive restructuring, social skills development, and development of problem solving skills. NIC makes available the T4C offender program materials plus a curriculum for training program facilitators. NIC also can assist agencies in training staff to facilitate the program ( National Institiute of Corrections on Thinking for a Change)

A Woman’s Reentry Court

“A Woman’s Journey Home: Challenges for Female Offenders and Their Children”, written in 2002, is an excellent publication, from the Urban Institute (published by the Dept of HHS), devoted to the challenges facing women returning from prison. Written by Stephanie S. Covington, PhD, LCSW, then Co-director of the Center for Gender & Justice, this study focuses on women’s issues and the inherent bias that effects women in prison and when returned to the community.

It should be noted that a number of Drug Courts and other Problem-Solving Courts have developed special tracks, both in the courtroom and treatment and rehabilitation programs in the community, that recognize the special needs and  interests of women. The first such program that I became aware of was established in 1993, by Judge William Schma,  a drug court pioneer, in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Judge Schma, was a powerful advocate for the separation of women from men in Drug Court. He argued that women become invisible in the presence of male participants, and the ability of both sexes to focus on their rehabilitation was compromised. I believe that he is and was correct on both counts.

In the field of Reentry Courts, one program stands out in this regard. The Second Chance Women’s Re-entry Court program in Los Angeles, established by Judge Michael Tynan, is an exceptonal program serving over 200 women in Los Angeles County.

San Francisco Parole Reentry Court Starts Up

Dec. 14, 2010

The SFPRC is designed to be a community-wide program, with the court as its hub. Members of the Court team include a Superior Court Judge, Program Coordinator, Defense Counsel, and Parole Officer (other team participants are expected to be announced shortly).

With the signing of the statewide California MOU, the San Francisco Parole Reentry Court (SFPRC), one of six pilot courts, has begun to formally accept participants into its program. The first six participants of the San Francisco Parole Reentry Court (SFPRC) were admitted to the Program on Thursday December 9th.

The SFPRC hopes to reach out to the entire San Francisco Community, building a circle of intervenors that can work together to effectively  reintegrate the parolee back into our greater community. It’s the mission of SFPRC to create an evolving community-based entity, that empowers and supports our clients, while dramatically reducing their criminal activity and return rate to prison.

Dallas Program: Back in The News

Nov. 15, 2010

Chris Watler, the Director of the Harlem  Community Justice Center (which houses the Harlem Parole Reentry court) takes a look at the Dallas SAFPT Reentry Court. This website published an article on the Dallas reentry program last December (Dallas SAFPC: Where Reentry is Also Preentry), but Chris’s article, (Rethinking Reentry: A Visit To The Dallas Reentry Court) gives a more down to earth description of one of the premiere Reentry Courts in the U.S.

L.A.’s Women’s Reentry Court

Oct. 24th

Judge  Michael Tynan of the Los Angeles Superior Court, runs the Second Chance Women’s Re-entry Court program, perhaps the only reentry court in the nation for women facing a return to state prison. Typically charged with nonviolent felonies, these women plead guilty to pending charges and enter treatment instead of being returned to state prison. The results have been extraordinary. According to an October 19th article in the Los Angels Times,  approximately 200 women  have enterred the program since its inception in 2007, and “overwhelmingly, the women are making it through treatment and going on to lead crime-free lives”.

SF adds 2 Reentry Courts


San Francisco Superior Court is about to implement two reentry courts, one for parolees returning from prison and the other for probationers who have spent a term in the county jail. The former is called the SF Parole Reentry Court; the latter, the  SF Probation Accountability Court. While there are a number of jurisdictions that work with parolees and others that work with probationers, San Francisco may be the only California jurisdiction that works with both populations that are reentering the community.

The Parole Reentry Court is expected to begin its sessions by the end of October; the Probation Accountability Court is expected to begin by the of November

See Examiner Article

Even Probation Successes Get The Blues

Today, Wednesday I facilitated three morning sessions on  the many faces of reentry court programs, and interviewed an ex-federal probationer. The interview turned out to be the most exciting part of a very interesting day. I got to ask the ex-probationer ( who had spent 108 months in federal prison)what were his problems with the Federal Reentry Program. He candidly spoke of the lack of services available and the specific lack of employment assistance. A federal probation officer who then joined the ex-offender on the stage explained that work was available, but that ex-offenders were typically not ready or prepared to do it. The contrast and brief confrontation between the two men was a change from the success stories often heard  from ex-offenders. Sometimes, it simply better to get ex-offenders to respond to probing questions regarding programs they’ve completed.

HOPE: An Innovative Probation Strategy

There is a new intensive probation model that is getting a great deal of attention in the criminal justice world. Hawaii’s First Circuit Court Judge Steven Alm started “Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement”(HOPE) Program as a small pilot project in 2004. With success, HOPE has grown to 1500 probationers (one sixth of felony offenders on Oahu). HOPE is a relatively economical, intensive probation program, that is especially attractive in these financially challenging times.  The approach in a nutshell; scale back on court, treatment, and rehabilitation involvement , and ratchet up swift, immediate, and certain punshment, with an emphasis on monitoring, drug testing, and immediate warrants, arrest, and sanctions, (typically a week in custody for a violation). Also, reduce the paper work, use simpler forms, reduced hearing times and rely largely on processl assessments.

A recently released evaluation of HOPE  by the UCLA School of Public Afairs, is quite impressive, as is a PEW Center For The States publication  on the program. But as noted by the researchers themselves, these are not new concepts and most if not all have been tried before with mixed results. Previous research on intensive probation supervision (without treatment and rehabilitation components)  have not fared particularly well.  According to the UCLA study, one reason for the HOPE program’s success, may be the extraordinary leadership of Judge Alm in implementing the HOPE program program and in ultimately getting disperate criminal justice agencies to work together effectively.

There are always unanswered questions when any new sentencing program is introduced. What specifically works for targeted demographics, what components of the program are truely necessary, and in particular, can compliance continue beyond the term of probation or court jurisdiction? There are obviously no long term studies on the efficacy of HOPE, nor on the ability of the high risk offender to establish a new drug free, crime free life style once they leave HOPE. The science suggests that there willl be a “response burst” of offenses and drug abuse, once the suppressive effects of intensive supervision are removed. While not a scientist. I do know from experience, that programs with new approaches to old problems, inspired and capable personnel, and extraordinary leadership, often do extremely well while that leadership remains in place (sometimes called the “innovator’s effect”). And that a single program can be enormously successful, while similar programs find it hard to get it right. We will no doubt find answers to some of these questions in the years to come.

Project Hope and similar programs deserve their chance to prove themselves, and find their place in the spectrum of evidence based sentencing practices (whose roots interstingly, go back to the Enlightenment). In the end, HOPE uses many of the same principles that drug courts adopted and that have been scientifically validated over the past twenty years. While HOPE  has largely avoided the treatment, incentives, rehabilitation and courtroom aspects of drug court, there’s reason to believe that it may expand to provide  at least some of those services over time. As described in the UCLA study, “The HOPE program has a strong theoretical basis. That swiftness and certainty outperform severity in the management of offending is a concept that dates back to Beccaria (1764).”  One would hope that there is much to learn from this program, whose roots go back over three hundred years.


Texas Slows The Revolving Door To Prison

From the Pew Center for the States’ Public Safety Performance Project publication (see article above),” Prison Count 2010: State Population Declines for the First Time in 38 Years” (p.3):

 Texas faced a projected prison population increase of up to 17,000 inmates in just five years.  Rather than spend nearly $2 billion on new prison construction and operations to accommodate this growth, policy makers reinvested a fraction of this amount—$241 million—in a network of residential and community-based treatment and diversion programs. This strategy has greatly expanded sentencing options for new offenses and sanctioning options for probation violators. Texas also increased its parole grant rate and shortened probation terms. As a result, this strong law-and-order state not only prevented the large projected population increase but reduced its prison population over the three years since the reforms were passed. (Note: one of a panoply of prison alternatives, Texas’ thriving reentry court system diverts offenders from prison into county based SAFPF Reentry Courts)

Harlem’s Administrative Parole Reentry Court

The Harlem Parole Reentry Court, sits in one of the oldest court buildings in Manhattan, though it is by no means a traditional court.  The renovated courthouse is home to the “Harlem Community Justice Center”,   a multi-jurisdictional community court project, as well as the Harlem Parole Reentry Court. The Reentry Court is presided over by Parole Administrative Law Judge Grace Bernstein, and staffed by co-located parole officers , as well as Justice Center case managers.

Prospective parolees are pre-identified while awaiting release from custody at one of two pre-release reentry facilities in New York City. The majority of parolees in the program are residents of Harlem, a historic but high poverty community. Recent research conducted by the Upper Manhattan Reentry Task Force, also a project of the Justice Center, found that half of all parolees released to Manhattan returned to Upper Manhattan, including Harlem, even though the area is home to just 36% of the county’s population.  Participants are assigned to the Reentry Court for frequent (often weekly) court hearings, and are immediately engaged in treatment, rehabilitation, and job related services. The Reentry Court team consists primarily of the judge, two parole officer, three case managers, and service providers. The Court is a non-adversarial forum so counsel is not present. The program provides an extraordinary courtroom session, where the Judge, parolee and staff  “drill down” on each case to learn what is going right, discuss challenges and where more support or services might be needed. The Court uses sanctions and incentives to help motivate participants, and has a wide variety of programs and services available within the building and community to increase opportunities for success. The program typically runs the first six months of parole, culminating in a graduation ceremony (recent keynote speakers included the legendary Harry Belafonte and recently elected Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr.). Successful completers have their cases transferred to a regular parole office but may continue to engage services at the Justice Center. Those who are terminated from the Reentry Court program, appear off site, at an adversarial “parole revocation hearing”, represented by counsel.

The Harlem Parole Reentry Court has been successful at reducing new convictions for parolees, as a recently released evaluation by the Center for Court Innovation shows. However, the news is mixed. The evaluation also points out that Reentry Court participants received more technical violations (typically failures to follow the directions of judge and parole officer; to drug test, attend programs, or maintain contacts) than the comparison group. Along with a number of other exemplary programs, Harlem’s Reentry Court’s smaller caseloads and improved collaboration and communication between parole staff and treatment staff make it harder for parolees’ mistakes to go unnoticed. As Court Administrator Chris Watler explained to me, the Harlem Reentry Court is much better than regular parole at catching the parolee in program violations that can lead to “parole revocations”. To address the problem, the Reentry Court is using a recently awarded Second Chance Act grant to develop an evidence-based risk assessment tool (COMPAS) and graduated response protocol.

Contact: [email protected]

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