After decades of general spinelessness on criminal justice reform (and I mean that in the nicest possible way), certain California democrats are energetically slapping down a rash of ill-conceived pieces of legislation that would roll-back parts of realignment.
The chief of those doing the slap-downs is Public Safety committee Chairman Tom Ammiano (D. San Francisco).
For instance, on Tuesday, Ammiano led the majority of his committee members to reject a bill that would return to prison sex offenders who violated parole, rather than sending them to jail for a shorter term.
In rejecting the bill, Ammiano expressed concern about the positive gains of realignment being dismantled, while at the same time acknowledging that, under realignment, some county sheriffs are slashing the jail terms of certain parolees far more than is wise.
Here’s what St. John writes on the matter:
[Ammiano] also expressed concern about how county officials decide who to release early from jail, and that California takes a “one size fits all” approach to sex offenders. Ammiano said he plans to file his own legislation on the matter later this year.
“You have identified a problem. There’s no doubt about that,” Ammiano told [Republican Assemblyman Mike] Morrell. “I disagree on your solution.” Morrell’s bill died on a 2-4 party-line vote, with Democrats in the majority.
This is heartening. Ammiano acknowledged that there are, indeed, some problems with the current law that need to be addressed. But he appeared to be looking for fact-based, targeted solutions with which to reform AB109—rather than simply throwing fear-based, reactive “tough-on-crime” bills at the matter, damn the consequences or the collateral damage.
(By the way, I don’t mean to slam Republicans on these issues. While a great many conservative California lawmakers have been annoyingly fact-challenged when it comes to the topic of realignment, on a national level a growing number of conservatives have shown real leadership in criminal justice matters, most notably the Right on Crime movement.)
AND IT SHOULD BE NOTED THAT TWO OF THE NEW REALIGNMENT ROLL-BACK BILLS ARE AUTHORED BY DEMOCRATS
A bill authored by Sacramento Assemblyman (D) Ken Cooley would send “drug traffickers” to prison, not jail—which on the surface sounds…reasonable. (I mean, whom among us wants big time drug traffickers to be given mere wrist slaps.) On the other hand, we’d like to drill down into this one a bit, and do some fact checking. In the meantime, Melody Gutierrez of the Sacramento Bee reports on Cooley’s bill, which would provide sentencing enhancements for certain kinds of drug dealers.
(Now see that’s a red flag right there: Sentencing enhancements. In California, we have not had a problem giving big time drug dealers big bad sentences. To the contrary, our prisons are loaded with small time drug dealers doing big nasty sentences. So what is it exactly we need to “enhance” anyway? Once WLA has had a chance to poke around a little bit, we’ll have a better idea if this bill has merit, or is playing to the cheap seats.)
Cooley also plans to co-introduce a bill that would send certain parole violators back to prison. WLA will be looking into that one too.
AND WHILE WE’RE ON THE SUBJECT OF REALIGNMENT….CUSTODY CANINES
With all the noisy grandstanding about the need to roll back the purported evils of realignment, what usually gets lost is the fact that a large part of the purpose of AB109 is for certain inmates and parolees to be taken out of the hands of the state and put in the care of the various counties. The reason for this (in addition to lowering the state’s prison populations like SCOTUS told us we must do—or else), is the belief that the counties are potentially better able to help these inmates and parolees succeed as they leave custody and reenter our communities. Rehabilitation and reentry is a task at which the state has roundly and repeatedly failed (hence our high recidivism rate, which led to our out-of-control prison population). AB109 challenges the counties to step up and do better.
Some counties, like San Francisco, have managed to coordinate their various agencies—probation, the sheriff’s department, and the rest— in order to grab hold of the challenge with some good early results.
Other counties (like LA)…not so much.
Nevertheless, there are a few bright spots. Which brings us to….Custody Canines.
MCJ’S JAIL DOGS
Right now, thirty-six Los Angeles County Jail inmates are participating in what is called the Custody Canine Program, housed—of all places—at Men’s Central Jail. Inmates volunteer for the 3-5 week program that teaches them to train dogs. Each of the dogs that come to the program has languished unwanted at a kennel or shelter. The idea is for the inmates to take these rejected critters and, through intensive training and interaction, to prepare them to be successfully adopted.
The program was started in August of last year in partnership with Belmonte’s Dog Training and Equipment, whose professional trainers provide the requisite instruction for the incarcerated humans who in turn work with the orphaned dogs. The participants, who are all part of the Sheriff Lee Baca’s Education Based Incarceration program, stay in 18-person dorms, with one dog to a dorm—meaning that everybody gets to take regular turns at hound duty.
The program kicks off at 6:30 a.m. each day, with a different person from the cell working with the dog every half hour, thus helping with the beast’s socialization, while both human and canine are gaining skills.
Custody Canine is funded through the Inmate Welfare Fund, which in turn is funded through the proceeds from inmate vending, commissary, and collect phone calls. (The “bonus” that the department receives every year for its collect phone call contracts amounts to big bucks.)
Similar programs are housed in various prisons around the nation, and have been widely praised for their success in rehabilitating troubled dogs, while helping inmates reconnect with themselves in such a way that increases the likelihood that they will succeed after they are released. However, few if any such programs have been tried in county jails, making LA’s Custody Canine unique—and promising.
KTLA also did a short story on the Custody Canine Program that’s worth watching to see the inmates and dogs working together.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We’ve not seen the program up close, but WLA plans to visit Custody Canines in person in the next few months as we survey various county programs that work with AB 109 prisoners and parolees—in LA County and elsewhere in the state. We’ll let you know what we see.