Talk about a collision of cruel irony and bad timing. Just as the California Legislature is debating the early “release” of 27,000 prisoners from lockups throughout the state, a dramatically successful experiment in Santa Barbara County designed to keep such prisoners from re-offending has lost its state funding. As a result, this pilot program-known as the Santa Barbara County Re-Entry Project-has just enough in back-up funds to limp along through the end of the year. In the meantime, it will serve only half its normal caseload.
“It’s a huge disappointment,” lamented Joan Petersilia, an academic superstar who’s spent the past 30 years studying what happens to prisoners after they’re convicted. “Just as Santa Barbara was showing impressive results, money from the state started drying up.”
California’s chronic budget crisis-and the prospect of reducing state prison expenditures by $1.2 billion-is driving the effort to release 27,000 inmates from California’s dangerously overcrowded penal facilities over the next two years. Of those, roughly 270 would return to Santa Barbara County.
Preliminary results suggest Santa Barbara’s Re-Entry Project could help reduce the escalating demand-and astronomical expense-associated with cell space in California, where 70 percent of state prisoners can be counted on to re-offend within three years. According to data just released by the Re-Entry Project, offenders who participated in the program were 37 percent less likely to be sent back after the first year than inmates who did not. Of the 134 clients who participated in the project, 41 percent re-offended within the first year. That compares to a control group of other inmates returning to Santa Barbara County who posted recidivism rates of 65 percent.
According to Petersilia-a part-time Santa Barbara resident who spent the past five years advising Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on prison reform-the very best programs are lucky to achieve reductions of 30 percent. Petersilia, who now teaches at Stanford Law School, played a major role designing Santa Barbara’s program. “We didn’t want to re-invent the wheel,” she said. “We just wanted to improve it.”
Those improvements could save the state serious money over the long run, noted Rick Roney, a retired software executive responsible for getting the Re-Entry Project started. It costs the state nearly $50,000 a year to keep an average prisoner locked up; it cost the Re-Entry Project just under $4,000 a year to keep an ex-con from going back. The problem, said Roney, is that the state has to spend money up front to save it down the road. “But right now, the state doesn’t have the money to spend,” he said. “That’s the dilemma.”
But even with the state’s budget woes mounting, Roney remains an incurable optimist. Although the Re-Entry Project will soon cease to exist, he is confident it will land a $2-million-a-year contract with the state Department of Parole, enabling it to morph into something different but bigger. Should this funding come to pass, Roney said the new entity-a day center for released prisoners on parole-could serve as many as 300 clients a year, deploying the same the principles that made the Re-Entry Project so successful.
Every year, 1,000 to 1,400 offenders are released back to Santa Barbara County from state prisons. Most have no home, no job, no skills, said Roney, and no real hope of making it. The vast majority have serious addiction problems; many are mentally ill. After serving their time, the state gives them a bus ticket to their county of origin and $200 in cash. Most returning offenders see their parole officers, who work out of Oxnard, once a month. In communities where day service centers exist for released prisoners-Santa Barbara is not one-the length of supervision is two to three months.
By contrast, the Re-Entry Project provides clients with intensive supervision, support, and case management for a year. Day-to-day operations are run by Steve Farugie, who managed the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission for eight years, and two assistants. Their strategy is to swarm returning offenders with a host of services from the second they set foot back in Santa Barbara. First, clients are enrolled in a drug or alcohol program; clean and sober living quarters are secured. Rental assistance is provided. On paper, clients can expect to meet with Farugie-who starts his workday at 6:30 a.m.-or his assistants once a week. Often it’s much more frequent. According to several program graduates, the three program managers enjoy serious credibility. Passionate and tireless, they know firsthand the stresses and strains their clients are going through; they can also see through the evasions and lies. But they’re there to help with, as one graduate put it, “a shoulder to lean on or a good kick in the ass.”
Not everyone makes it. In two years, 55 clients have been sent back to prison-14 for new offenses, the rest for parole violations. But some of those 55 managed to come back upon re-release, to re-enroll, and, ultimately, to graduate from the Re-Entry Project. Even clients who run afoul of the law do so much later and less frequently.
Initially, the project was populated by people who volunteered for the program, having been contacted in prison six months prior to their release. No sex offenders are allowed. Violent offenders were initially barred; now they’re allowed. “We’re not targeting the soft pitches,” said Farugie, meaning the people who likely would have made it on their own. While the client profile is somewhat older and whiter than that of the County Jail and state prison populations, they include multiple offenders-some in and out of prison 15 times-lifelong gang members, and many drug dealers and abusers. “Addiction is central,” stated Roney. Over time, the program has relied less upon volunteers and far more upon parolees ordered to participate by their parole officers. It turns out that mandatory participants enjoy a higher success rate than the volunteers.
At issue is whether Santa Barbara’s success can be replicated elsewhere. Petersilia is not so sure. What’s made Santa Barbara so successful, aside from Farugie’s leadership, is the active personal support by a wide array of high-ranking law enforcement officials-most notably Sheriff Bill Brown-as well an unusually rich and diverse network of social service agencies both public and private nonprofit. And not every community is endowed with retired corporate executives like Rick Roney, who concluded several years ago after a visit to San Quentin, “The whole system is crazy and I might be able to help make a change.” Nor are most towns endowed with the high-powered expertise of a Joan Petersilia, whose involvement brings instant credibility.
“I’m not saying it can’t be duplicated,” said Petersilia. “But it will be difficult.” By contrast, Roney and Farugie are more optimistic. “It’s not rocket science,” said Roney. “Our experience shows it’s possible to get results. We did it.”