Some of the participant/clients of the an Francisco Parole Reentry Court, a Community-Based Court Program
Some of the participant/clients of the San Francisco Parole Reentry Court, a Community-Based Court Program



October 19, 2015


An article in the Huffington Post proposes a novel alternative to the existing prisons system, prisons that are run by non-profit organizations (Huffington Post, “Nonprofit Floats Unusual Alternative To Private Prison”). The author, Saki Knafo, describes how “Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants, or CURE, a prison reform group comprised mainly of former inmates, wants to convert a private jail in D.C. into what they say would be the first nonprofit lockup in the country, if not the world.”

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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.

San Francisco Reentry Court Start-Up

For someone who believed he had a basic understood of Reentry Court and its parolee participants, the last six months of planning and implementing the San Francisco Reentry Court have been something of a revelation. The parolees themselves have surprised me the most with their willingness to participate in court sessions and court-ordered programs (appearing for  better than 99% of weekly court appearances). While it’s far to early to analyze the limited data,  building a core community and an expanded team within the court program itself, and creating an environment where participants feel welcome and respected, appear to be  potential factors in explaining initial parolee participation.


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.

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