California’s Conflict with Federal Courts Shines A Light On Prisons

California’s prison dilemma is perhaps the most severe in the nation. Critics claim that twice as many prisoners are crammed into the state’s prison as is acceptable. A federal judicial panel has agreed with that assessment and demanded that the state come up with a plan to release 40,000 inmates over the next two years, as a necessary step in solving the problem of inadequate medical and mental health services.

Last week, the judges accepted  Governor Schwarzenegger’s offer to resolve the conflict (previously rejected by the legislature), but the judges postponed the effective date of their order pending U.S. Supreme Court consideration of it. Among other provisions, the governor’s plan would, allow some prisoners to be transferred to county jail, reduce penalties for some property thefts, allow expanded home detention, and in a more recent proposal (highlighted in his state of the state speech) transfer prisoners to privately run prisons (Details of Court Decision)

Without getting into the minutia of California’s prison disaster, it is instructive to the nation, and  points to an overwhelming need to take a fresh look at how we sentence, incarcerate, and release inmates from our jails and prisons. In California, there is $45 million dollars alone, available through Federal Cal EMA funding (largely federal stimulus funds), to explore ways to use probation based courts to keep offenders out of prison in the first place, and an additional $10 million available to investigate ways the courts can, for the first time, be part of the prison reentry process. These funds are clearly the tip of the iceberg, with $100 million in “Second Chance Act” funds and perhaps another $300 million in federal funds available nationwide (and that’s likely only the beginning of the reentry funding stream). Clearly, these are extraordinary times that offer both probation and prison-based reentry courts once in a life time opportunities, to provide innovative alternatives to failed prison policies.

Pre-entry Courts in the Age of Reentry

Pre-Entry Court is a county probation-based reentry court and an advanced next generation drug court, . Typically, non-violent drug offenders are placed on  probation, with a state prison sentence suspended, and the offender ordered to attend, participate, and complete an in-custody treatment program as a condition of probation ( for those legally inclined, “execution of sentence is suspended”).  In essence, rather than dealing with the  offender after they serve a prison term (with all its dibilitating consequences) they are given their last best opportunity to enter a “pre-entry court” (or a “before entry to  prison court”) and avoid a formal prison commitment.

For example,  County Jail-Based Reentry Courts offer the possibility of reducing state prison populations with their extraordinary costs,while providing the serious non-violent offender, the  seamless  monitoring, treatment, and rehabilitative services of  a comprehensive drug court.  (It can be confusing at first, to realize that there are two kinds of reentry courts, one dealing with prison reentry, the other with those returning from extended jail or other probation-based custodial programs.)

Optimally, Pre-entry Courts (typically county-jail based reentry courts)  engage the offender at the time of plea and assessment through sentencing, entry into, and completion from an in-custody rehabilitation program. When released from custodial status into the community, the pre-entry court judge and team continue to monitor the probationer through progress hearings and finally program graduation.

Ultimately, a pre-entry court will be part of a Next Generation Drug Court System, providing comprehensive drug court services  to returnees from jail, other county-based custodial programs,  probation revocations, prison (and more traditional drug court participants, who typically do not receieve  an immediate custodial sentence). The emergence of fledgling  pre-entry courts, while focused mostly on those with substance abuse problems, is an important development in criminal justice reform, and arguably the best way to reduce both prison over-crowding and prison reentry failure, whether offenders are drug involved or not. [for a unique example of a pre-entry court, see Dallas SAFPF Reentry Court]

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