On Tuesday, July 12, the LA County Board of Supervisors will prepare to decide who will supervise the approximately 13,000 parolees yearly who will now be LA County’s responsibility starting on October 1.
In the past all parolees—felons coming out of prison— have been supervised by the state. But, as part of the strategy to balance California’s budget, while also reducing the number of inmates who cycle in and out of the state’s benighted and overcrowded prisons by better helping them reenter our communities, all state parolees who are the so-called non-non-nons—non-violent offenders, non-sex offenders, non-serious offenders—will be supervised by California’s 58 counties.
In Los Angeles, the matter of who exactly will do the supervising is an open question. In 57 out of California’s 58 counties, the answer is simple: that job will fall to the logical agency already equipped to supervise and help rehabilitate lawbreakers—namely each county’s probation department.
However, in LA—which incidentally has by far the largest number of these “realigned” parolees—there are two agencies bidding for the job, and for the pile of funds that goes along with it.
Those agencies are LA County Probation, headed by Donald Blevins—and the LA County Sheriff’s Department, with Sheriff Lee Baca doing everything he can to get the nod.
WHO IS VOTING FOR WHOM?
Right now the Sups are reportedly leaning toward handing the responsibility to Lee Baca and the LASD. If the Sups go Baca’s direction, they will be agreeing to a system that exists no where else in the U.S.. (The folks who arrest parolees for stepping outside the law are generally not also the one’s who help advise, oversee and rehabilitate them. It’s—how to put it?—a very weird conflict of interest.)
Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Gloria Molina are reportedly voting for Baca’s plan (with Ridley-Thomas wishing to give the Sheriff a tryout period, not an indefinite commitment). Mike Antonovich is the only one of the Sups who is thought to be leaning toward giving the responsibility and the money to Probation and Blevins. Don Knabe is thought to be in the Sheriff’s column. Zev Yaroslavsky
was leaning toward the Sheriff, but may be wobbling still has yet to decide. [<---NOTE: My initial info had Zev somewhat in the Sheriff's column, but looks like I had it wrong. His vote is reportedly still in play.]
Interestingly, although the majority of the Supervisors are considered likely to vote in favor of the Sheriff, the majority of the Sups most knowledgeable deputies are reportedly pushing for Probation to be given the 13,000 parolees to oversee.
This latter fact is very telling.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
I realize for many of you, this entire decision sounds like a colossal yawn. But bear with me.
As I mentioned above, part of the idea for the statewide switchover, is that local agencies can do the supervision for less money than the state can. But even more importantly, the locals can do it more effectively—which is crucial. A huge portion of the state’s unmanageable and intolerably expensive prison population is made up of repeat visitors. The majority of those who return to our locked hotels, do so not for new crimes, but for technical violations of their parole.
Since the state’s parole agencies have, for a variety of reasons, done a consistently hideous job of helping parolees get back on their respective feet—as our ghastly recidivism numbers reflect—the fact that a new agency in California’s largest county will have an opportunity to rethink parole policy using the best practices from other states who are doing a better job that we are….well, it’s a genuinely significant opportunity.
And we’re in danger of blowing it.
THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA
The most hellish part of the decision the Sups must make, is that both Probation and the Sheriff’s Department are agencies with humungous problems. So there is no really great choice.
Probation is still frighteningly inept at reforming its deeply troubled juvenile probation facilities, places that in too many cases are actively doing harm to kids. Yet, Probation’s adult services, while far from perfect, are generally reasonably functional. Plus they are the services most directly analogous to those required in overseeing parolees.
As for the Sheriff’s Department, despite Lee Baca’s popularity and his genuine belief in rehabilitation, his jails are such a mess they have attracted a brand new federal investigation. (Problems at the LASD facilities will be further evidenced by WitnessLA’s two-part investigation into the LA County Jails that will run later this summer).
Most importantly, law enforcement is not, for a thousand reasons, the right agency to run a parole system.
The LA Times has an unsigned editorial in Tuesday’s paper (written by Rob Greene and Sandra Hernandez) and it gets to the crux of the matter very, very well. Here’s a clip:
The tragedy of the county’s predicament is that the arrival of new state parolees ought to be an opportunity to focus on the reentry of these ex-prisoners into society. It should fall to churches, mosques and synagogues, to nonprofit organizations, to schools, but above all to county government to ensure that those leaving institutions and reentering their neighborhoods do so in a way that maximizes their chance to become productive and law-abiding citizens.
Even the parolees expected to come to Los Angeles County — those whose crimes were nonviolent, non-sexual and relatively low-level — are more likely than the state’s population at large to be sick, addicted, mentally ill, poorly educated and unemployable. Given that California’s state prison system has disinvested in prisoner care and rehabilitation, the parolees are unlikely to come home any better prepared to lead productive lives than when they went in. Indeed, the failure of the state’s parole efforts is one of the best arguments for turning this responsibility over to local governments, which at least have a fighting chance.
Los Angeles County has done little to prepare for this opportunity, and it must now suffer the consequences of its past mismanagement. Forced to pick between two troubled agencies, it should take the one that at least encompasses the mission. The county employees best experienced and oriented toward that task are probation workers.
Sheriff’s deputies are not.
IF PROBATION WANTS THE GIG IT NEEDS TO FIGHT FOR IT
It hardly helped Probation’s case that while Sheriff Baca was making doing one more round of enthusiastic pitches to explain why he should be given the parolees, making it clear to all concerned that he really, really wanted the job, Probation Chief Blevins spent last week in San Diego at a conference for Chief Probation Officers, no doubt a worthy event, but not when so much is at stake.
When I talked to Blevins last month about the soon-to-be-reassigned parolees, he was clear, persuasive and articulate about the ways in which Probation could potentially make a difference in the lives of thousands of released prisoners. It is perplexing that he has not been aggressive in making a strong case to those who actually vote on the matter.
NOTE: I’M MOSTLY TWEETING, AND BARELY DOING ANY BLOGGING WHILE I’M AWAY IN MT (BACK JULY 25), BUT THIS ISSUE WAS TOO IMPORTANT TO LET SLIDE BY
UPDATE: It appears that the Sups won’t vote today as there is a brand new 37-page analysis from the County CEO’s office on the competing plans and it shows that the Sheriff’s plan will cost substantively more (in the tens of millions of $$) than that of Probation, a wrinkle that the Supervisors need time to consider.