Prisoner Rehab makes a comeback

Project Proposed to Reduce Parolee Recidivism

by Martha Sadler

SBJail-File.gifThe state’s top prison official visited the county this week at the request of outgoing Sheriff Jim Anderson, to help promote a project that they hope will prepare more felons to lead law-abiding lives after they are released back into society. James Tilton, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, dangled before county supervisors the possibility of a full-immersion rehab program backed up by a phalanx of new state parole officers. Ideally, the state would also help fund the facility’s construction in conjunction with a new North County jail — the jail that Anderson talked about building throughout his recent, unsuccessful campaign for reelection. Even though it would house state prisoners at the end of their sentences, not people sentenced to county jail time, the project would have the effect of reducing jail overcrowding because convicts on their way to state prison are first housed in the county jail. Tilton emphasized that the state prison facility would be exclusively for convicts from Santa Barbara. Based on other states’ experience, he estimated that such a facility would reduce recidivism rates from 67 percent to — at best — 47 percent, saving $7 in justice system costs for every $1 invested.

There are several hurdles to overcome before a prisoners’ rehabilitation facility becomes a reality. One is that the legislature has yet to approve funding for any such project.

Tilton, who was appointed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to revamp the prison system, said that as far as he is concerned, prisons should focus on transitioning convicts back into society from the moment they enter the gate, and all new prison construction should consist of rehab facilities in various counties. However, in the more likely event that only a single pilot project is initially funded, Santa Barbara County faces some tough competition. One of the other contenders is San Francisco, where Local 22 is already training some 200 prisoners to become union carpenters. Tilton suggested that Santa Barbara parolees might be put to work helping Habitat for Humanity build housing, and he noted that preliminary fundraising and planning for an expanded North County jail makes Santa Barbara an attractive candidate. In addition, an informal group of law enforcement representatives has been discussing rehabilitation schemes for more than a year.

Sheriff-elect Bill Brown, although he has been highly skeptical of Anderson’s plans for a new jail, expressed full support for this idea. The Board of Supervisors was enthusiastic but expressed some nervousness about how it would be received in the North County, where a prison rehab facility would most likely be located. “When we have folks saying to us that they don’t want affordable housing next to them,” said 5th District Supervisor Joe Centeno, “I wonder how they are going to react to this.” Supporters responded that they had met with nothing but support across the ideological spectrum when the idea was discussed face-to-face. Joan Petersilia, a Santa Barbara author and former RAND Corporation prison expert who has acted as a consultant on rehabilitation facilities in various states, asked rhetorically, “Who do you want sitting next to your children on the bus — someone with a plan, or someone who just got out of 24-hour-a-day lockdown? Men like that get off the Greyhound in Lompoc all the time.”

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