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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Prison reform at last

For San Diego's North County Times
It took a federal court ruling and a $28 billion budget deficit for California to finally do something about its obsolete prison system. San Diego County's chief probation officer, Mack Jenkins, told the Carlsbad City Council last month that implementing Assembly Bill 109, the Public Safety Realignment Act, will be "the most significant change in California's correctional system in at least 30 years."

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last May that conditions caused by crowding 167,000 inmates into buildings built for 90,000 were in violation of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Now it's a question of how to reduce the prison population while protecting the public and reducing the deficit. San Diego County's community corrections plan is on track to do all three.

Contrary to a wealth of misinformation, no state prison inmates are being transferred to local jails. Those who've served their sentences, are at low risk for reoffending and are eligible for parole are being assigned to local probation officers who will engage in far more proactive follow-up than the state parole system. Jenkins said it will include both announced and unannounced visits and more careful tracking.

Only four of the 1,000 parolees shifted to San Diego County to this date reside in Carlsbad. Vista has 61, Escondido 55 and Oceanside 41. Carlsbad Police Chief Gary Morrison reported there's been no increase in the city's crime rate.

Future nonviolent and non-high-risk sex offenders who were previously sent to state prisons will now serve their sentences in county jails, as will parole violators who haven't committed another crime. Criminal reoffenders will return to prison.

The goals of the Community Corrections Partnership, which Jenkins chairs, are to provide more efficient use of jails by using electronic tracking and house arrest, in-custody re-entry programming, evidence-based supervision practices and asking judges to use evidence-based practices in sentencing. In other words, to spend less money on warehousing nonviolent, low-risk inmates and investing more in tracking and rehabilitating them.

An April 2011 report by the Pew Center on the States, "State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America's Prisons," revealed California has the country's largest prison population as well as its highest recidivism rate, at 58 percent reoffending within three years of release.
Oregon has the lowest at 23 percent. That's been attributed to the same careful risk management, transition planning, community-based probation and evidence-based design and delivery that San Diego County is pursuing.

In his report, Jenkins told Carlsbad officials it costs the state about $50,000 a year to house a prison inmate. According to the Pew report, California could save as much as $233 million in a single year if it reduces its recidivism rate by just 10 percent.

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