LOS ANGELES (FinalCall.com) – A U.S. Supreme Court order for California to reduce overcrowding in its prisons by 33,000 inmates over the next two years is long overdue but the lack of jobs and resources in communities awaiting them could have a devastating outcome, ex-offender advocates say.
The court’s 5-4 decision issued May 23 has put California and the rest of the country on notice again about a serious problem.
“We’re not prepared in the way that we need to be prepared,” said Roberta Meyers-Peeples, director of the National Helping Individuals with Criminal Records Re-enter through Employment Network.It is a litigation, services and policy advocacy clearinghouse based in New York and Washington, D.C.
People can stop short when they think about men and women returning home but their families are also affected and resources are limited for organizations committed to improving their lives, the advocate told The Final Call.
Funding opportunities are scarce, particularly because of the economic recession and because so many people are being routinely released from prisons and jails, she said.
Advocacy groups are seeking sophisticated and innovative ways to leverage resources and forge partnerships to meet re-entry needs while also tracking their progress.In California, a bill introduced by Assemblyman Sandre Swanson that would make non-violent drug offenders eligible for food stamps is pending a vote in the state Senate.
Ms. Meyers-Peeples called jobs as a key to re-entry success because employment is the link to self-sufficiency, being able to provide for self and family and avoid going back to prison.Another major problem is a lack of transitional housing and access to appropriate mental and medical care, said Dr. Ronald Beavers, a psychologist with the Positive Imagery Foundation, Inc. in South Los Angeles.
“If people are released without adequate safety nets, they will get frustrated and sadly, their natural reaction could be to do what they have to do to survive, but that can be averted,” whether it is for one inmate or thousands, Dr. Beavers said.
The court-ordered inmate reductions will not occur in a mass exodus from prison or in a way that threatens public safety, according to David Muhammad, newly-appointed chief probation officer for Alameda County. There actually could be no difference whatsoever in the number of returns people see in their communities, he added.
Non-violent, non-serious offenders would be released at their regularly-appointed time under probation supervision rather than parole under a plan introduced by Governor Jerry Brown.The plan has been adopted but currently lacks funding.The difference is parole’s ability to immediately arrest and detain people, Mr. Muhammad said.
“This is a huge point because fear mongers will say, ‘Oh my God! All these violent and dangerous people will get out of jail,’ but California’s prison system is overburdened primarily because of technical violations of parole and probation and that’s really who we’re talking about,” Mr. Muhammad said.
California spends about $50,000 per year for an inmate but transferring a reasonable portion of that amount to local jurisdiction would move the process along appropriately, Mr. Muhammad said.He supports the plan and feels it is more effective for justice to be administered locally.
“Folks coming out of jail primarily need education and employment and we need to transfer the kind of gross amount of money that has been spent on ineffective incarceration to serving, supporting and supervising people at the local level,” Mr. Muhammad argued.
He explained that “ineffective incarceration” is imprisoning vast numbers of people from poor neighborhoods, with failing education systems, high unemployment, liquor stores on most corners and ready access to guns.
Prison officials recently reclassified approximately 3,000 women as low-level offenders and expect to release them to their South Los Angeles neighborhoods within about six weeks, according to Dr. Beavers, who said the women were prioritized because they are mothers.
“I think about the women, who, probably more than the men, have burned more bridges.Their families are not as sympathetic and their boyfriends or husbands are not standing there waiting for them to come home.Many of these mothers will come back without any connections to get on their feet and somebody has to plan for them,” Ms. Meyers-Peeples said.