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Counties seek to reduce parolee re-offense rate
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SANTA ANA  (AP) — When Yen Ly was released from behind bars this spring, she assumed it wouldn’t be long before she began committing credit card fraud again to keep up with bills while feeding a devastating meth habit.

This time, however, was different. Five months later, the 29-year-old single mother who had been convicted twice for identity theft is a fulltime beauty school student, performs community service and has consistently tested clean for drugs.

Ly also is on the leadership committee of a special center where low-level ex-cons can take classes, learn parenting skills, get job training and complete drug and alcohol counseling — all in the same place. She said the program gave her structure and confidence and helped her grow as a parent.

“I feel as if they’re giving me a second chance and I’m not going to waste it,” Ly said. “I’ve gone this far and I don’t want to go back.”

Ly is one of thousands of lower-level felons in California being supervised by local authorities instead of state parole officers under a recent law that overhauled the state’s criminal justice system. Under the so-called realignment law, counties — and not the state — now bear the responsibility for housing inmates convicted of most non-serious, non-sexual and non-violent felonies and for watching them after their release.

The main intent of the initiative, pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown, was to reduce severe overcrowding in California’s 33 adult prisons, a reduction that is mandated under a federal court order. Realignment also aims to make rehabilitation for lower-level felons a priority over incarceration.

Before the law took effect in October 2011, California had the nation’s highest recidivism rate, with about 70 percent of ex-cons being returned to prison after committing a new crime. While there are no data yet on whether realignment has had an effect, counties are implementing numerous programs to keep parolees from re-offending.

Many offenders committed crimes because they were drug addicts and can end the cycle of prison stints with better support on the outside, said Selena Teji, a policy analyst and spokeswoman with the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco.

“They don’t know how to function, so how do you teach them to play well with others and function in society? It’s about teaching them the rules in life,” she said. “The state was explicit in saying that realignment was because incarceration didn’t work.”

As a result, counties have been developing new strategies to keep felons from re-offending, which would now land them in already-overcrowded county lock-ups instead of state prison.

In less than two years, county probation departments more accustomed to handcuffs than hand-holding have entered a new world in which buzzwords such as “motivational interviewing” and “cognitive-behavioral therapy” are routine, and role-playing and journal-writing for ex-cons are an accepted part of doing business.

Probation departments in many counties, including Orange, have used the state funding that accompanied realignment to set up day-reporting centers where offenders can get everything from job training to parenting tips to help getting a new driver’s license. Others have created networks between county mental health departments, law enforcement, homeless shelters and local substance abuse treatment programs to respond to inmates’ needs.

“We know that there are basic building blocks to keep a person from re-offending. They need to be sober, they need to have some basic survival skills and they need employment,” said Chris Condon, a spokesman for the San Bernardino County Probation Department.

Experts tracking the shift say it’s too soon to know whether the county efforts are working to lower the recidivism rate. The law did not require counties to collect specific data on recidivism. Even getting all 58 counties to agree on a definition of recidivism has proven challenging.

Several long-term studies are underway, but it will be months, if not several years, before it’s clear which county programs are working and which ones are not.

For former inmates such as Ly, the change means an intense focus on them as individuals from the moment they are released — and sometimes even before.

In San Francisco County, the jail has created a “re-entry pod” — a special unit where soon-to-be-released inmates get social services such as therapy, child support, benefits eligibility and drug treatment even before they are set free, based on individualized assessments of their needs.

The county has already been working with low-level felons who are doing their time in county jail under the realignment law. Next month, it plans to start moving inmates who were sentenced to prison before the law took effect into the county jail “pod” two months before they are released from custody, to ease their transition back to their community.

“If you go to a doctor, no doctor would ever prescribe medication or a course of treatment until an evaluation has been done and they have a specific diagnosis,” said Wendy Still, the county’s probation chief. “That’s the same approach we’re taking toward criminal justice.”

Smaller, rural counties also are trying new approaches to reduce the re-offense rate.

In Northern California, Glenn, Trinity and Colusa counties have pooled resources to create a network of social service providers, probation agents and mental health experts to help former inmates. Caseworkers follow them upon their release and help them find jobs.

The region, with only about 64,000 residents spread throughout the three counties, has graduated 40 participants this fiscal year but has an early re-offense rate of less than 13 percent, said Pedro Bobadilla, principal program specialist with the Colusa-Glenn-Trinity Community Action Partnership.

Some graduates have started their own businesses and others have returned as volunteer “mentors” for people still in the program — steps that can change the fate of offender’s entire family forever, he said.

“How can you put a price on families changing their dynamic, sending their kids to college when no one’s ever gone to college before?” he said. “One of those people can go on to do great things.”