The waiting game of prisoner realignment

With a proposed jail expansion now on the back burner, county officials are spending long hours hammering out the fine print of what Contra Costa services will look like for the low-level felons who have been transferred to county jurisdiction in the last year.

Under “realignment,” what was once the responsibility of state parole agents now rests on the desks of county probation officers. And until a budget gets approved, county service providers, like the probation department, are juggling more work with limited staff.

Probation Supervisor Melvin Russell manages the seven probation officers handling realignment cases. Russell’s staff is spread thin across East, Central and West County, and each officer handles an average load of 60-70 cases at any given time. That’s up from an average caseload of 40-50 each just a year ago when realignment first went into effect.

“The numbers are creeping,” Russell said.

Russell requested an additional four officers from the Community Corrections Partnership, a seven-member group overseeing $19 million in state realignment funds, at the partnership’s Sept. 6 meeting. The group granted Russell half of his request, giving him two additional officers to ease the workload throughout the county.

But that still leaves Russell without any manpower to go into the jails and work on the front end of probation.

“Something’s got to give,” he said.

The first 48 hours after a prisoner is released are crucial, Russell said. If probation officers can get a head start on determining the needed services for each prisoner and get the ball rolling before they’re on the streets, the chances of a successful reentry into the community are greater.

“My fear is that the numbers go up, someone falls through the cracks, and causes some heinous crime,” said Russell, who grew up in Richmond and recently moved back.

Members of the temporary committee charged with creating a comprehensive, efficient operational plan to manage the realignment prisoners, say they’re concerned, too – but that they want to make sure they get it right.

“Of course we all want it now,” said Jessie Warner, the county reentry coordinator. “At the same time, [we need] to be realistic of how the process will move forward.”

The group is hoping to present a plan to the CCP to review in the first week of October. But Warner said meeting talk probably won’t be translated to on-the-ground services until early next year.

“The takeaway from all of this is that we have an opportunity,” she said. “And it’s exciting that the committee has stepped back to dig deep and articulate a clear vision and a plan to see it through.”

The committee has met several times over the course of the last month to clearly articulate goals for every stage of incarceration — from arrest to reentry. The committee is also reviewing the operational plan for efficiency and redundancy, so that the best agency — be it a county provider or a community volunteer — provides the best possible service.

“It takes time and energy to figure some of those questions out,” Warner said. There is “this idea that careful planning up front will bring better results when we actually implement the county reentry effort.”

Contra Costa’s Chief Probation Officer Phil Kader, who chairs the CCP said he’s sympathetic to the effort and doesn’t want to rush the group. Still, he noted that the $19 million arrived from the state three months ago, and the CCP is still nowhere close to approving a budget.

Kader’s officers are already using a new program called “Thinking for a Change” to help their clients. The 26-week course encourages mentorship and coaching, with the officers helping their clients look for new perspectives.

Kader also implemented a guideline called the Matrix that he said will improve consistency among officers. The probation department also just received a grant to hire two new officers that will work in the detention facilities for the general population — beyond realignment — and start a risk assessment before the prisoners are released.

“We are fully invested as a department to prevent crime,” Kader said. “But if we can give people the best tools possible to be successful, we believe they will respond.”

One Comment

  1. Kennedy Grad

    I wonder if electronic monitoring could help. I think electronic monitoring may be the theoretical solution to many of these problems.

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