Prison and Parole

Finding 3: The State is not providing enough education, treatment and job training to prepare inmates to become responsible citizens once they return to the community.

Popular wisdom holds that the way to protect the public from crime is to send criminals to prison. But that idea is undermined by the reality that nine out of 10 prisoners are released back into the community. With a median prison term of 21 months, half the inmates in California prisons today will be back on the streets within two years.

The statistics illustrate that locking up criminals is only half the job of protecting public safety. The other half is taking advantage of the time offenders spend in state custody -- in prison and on parole -- to prepare them to function as responsible citizens, prevent them from committing future crimes and cycling back into prison.

By all of the evidence, California is not succeeding in that mission. Two-thirds of the inmates in state prison have served time before and were out on the street for less than a year before returning to prison. The reasons are not a mystery. A quarter of all inmates are in prison for drug crimes, and experts say that drug abuse drives criminal activity in 80 percent of all offenders. Many inmates cannot read or write. Many lack basic living skills, not to mention the education and training needed to get and keep a job.

Recognizing the influence of drugs on crime, CDC has begun to expand its drug abuse treatment programs. But drug treatment remains available to only a small percentage of inmates. And few prisoners and parolees have access to effective education, counseling and job training.

Reducing Future Crime

For decades in California, rehabilitation was a central function of both prison and parole. Those efforts were girded by the State's indeterminate sentencing law, under which offenders were sentenced to a prison term that spanned a range of years -- such as five years to life -- and were released only when they were deemed by the Adult Authority to be able to responsibly participate in society. Parolees could be on parole for 15 years or more. And if they lapsed, the parole agent had the authority to send them back to prison for the remainder of the indeterminate sentence, which could be life.

Determinate sentencing changed all that. In the mid-1970s, the indeterminate sentencing system came under attack because offenders convicted of similar crimes were serving widely varying prison terms. About the same time the idea that criminals could be rehabilitated became discredited with the publication of a study that was interpreted to mean that none of the treatments then available were effective at changing criminal behavior. That study, titled "What Works?" came to be known as the "Nothing Works" study.(72)

In 1977, indeterminate sentencing, which had been in effect in California since 1918, was replaced for most crimes by determinate sentencing. The Determinate Sentencing Act also specifically abandoned rehabilitation as a purpose of prison and established punishment as the goal. Except for those convicted of specified serious offenses, determinate sentencing remains in effect today.

Because determinate sentencing defines the precise term an offender will serve, inmates now know early in their term when they likely will be released, whether or not they make any effort to become responsible citizens. The determinate sentencing law also limits parole to a four-year period and decreases the time that parole violators can be returned to prison to no more than one year. As a result, today inmates and parolees have little incentive to cooperate in programs that might reduce their criminal behavior.

Recently lawmakers have moved toward restoring rehabilitation as a purpose of imprisonment. In 1995 the Legislature enacted a bill that encouraged CDC to develop policies and programs to educate and rehabilitate nonviolent first-time felony offenders.(73) And some lawmakers, with an eye on recidivism rates and high prison construction costs, have pushed unsuccessfully for a significant increase in drug treatment beds in state prisons.(74)

Education and Job Training

In addition to the 1995 law directed toward nonviolent first offenders, the Department of Corrections is bound by four other requirements relating to education and job training for prison inmates:

Despite these requirements, the programs and services provided to inmates are minimal and a large percentage of inmates do little more than serve time before they are released. CDC statistics show barely half of all prison inmates participating in programs at any given time and less than a quarter receiving the kind of education and vocational training that might enable them to get a job and integrate into the community.

Prison Programs

Many of the programs available to inmates are provided by organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, which send volunteers into the prisons, and by private companies and non-profit organizations under contract to CDC, which furnish both in-prison and post-release services. The programs vary from institution to institution, but may include remedial education, literacy classes, stress and anger management, job training, re-entry classes and a small number of work furlough opportunities. Most of the programs are voluntary for inmates, although prisoners earn work-time credits for participation.

According to CDC, as of October 1997, 56.8 percent of the prison population -- 83,688 inmates -- were participating in education, vocational or work programs.(77) That proportion has remained constant in recent years, but represents a drop since July 1993 when the department reported 62.5 percent of the prison population participating in programs. The department's definition of "programs," however, is significant:

The number of inmates in the Prison Industry Authority and Joint Venture programs are smaller still: PIA participants number 6,324 -- 4 percent of the prison population -- and those in the Joint Venture Program total 223 -- .14 percent.(78)

Despite the statutory requirement that CDC offer literacy training to 60 percent of eligible inmates by January 1, 1996 -- with the goal that eventually all prisoners achieve ninth grade literacy -- the department reported in 1997 that only 35 to 40 percent of eligible inmates had access to literacy programs. A 1997 study by California State University, Sacramento put the median reading level of state prison inmates at between the sixth and seventh grades and reported that two-thirds of inmates were reading below the ninth-grade level.(79)

Deficiencies in the System

A number of factors account for the small percentage of inmates participating in programs. Foremost among these is the fundamental belief of the State's correctional officials that the behavior of most prison inmates cannot be changed. The Secretary of the Youth and Adult Corrections Agency told the Commission:

Corrections gets only the worst of the worst -- those who have failed numerous times before. Seventy-five percent have at least one prior (conviction) and the average is five priors. The task of rehabilitation is not easy.(82)

Because of that view the Department of Corrections assigns education and treatment a low priority, maintaining that its purpose is simply to keep inmates locked up:

The Department of Corrections' mission is to house the felons who are convicted and sent to prison. The mission is not to "correct" them. Our mission is to provide the sanction that the courts imposed. There are some aspects for low-level first-time offenders where we do try to provide some help to get them to refocus their efforts away from crime and away from victimization toward living as an appropriate citizen in society. But corrections is really derived from the principle of correcting the conduct by taking them out of law-abiding society. (83)

For those reasons, and because the department is preoccupied by the crush of inmates flowing into the prison system, CDC has not put much effort into developing programs or encouraging outside providers to furnish services. As a result, even for inmates motivated on their own to take classes or learn a trade, opportunities are a catch-as-catch-can-proposition. Often classes are full and have long waiting lists. Inmates may spend an entire sentence on a waiting list and be released before a spot opens up.

Policy analysts, service providers and academic experts identified a number of specific shortcomings in the State's programs that limits their potential to reduce future crimes and long-term prison costs:

Moreover, the in-prison programs suffer from a problem that plagues most aspects of the correctional system: a lack of rigorous independent evaluation that could provide policy makers and program managers with the ability to cost-effectively refine the corrections strategy to reduce future crimes and as a result the need for additional prisons. This issue is described in greater detail in Finding 5, which reviews contracting procedures. But evaluations are essential in government-run, as well as contracted programs.

Drug Treatment Works

With more than 40,000 prison inmates serving terms for drug crimes, and as many as 80 percent of all inmates affected by substance abuse, the State's paucity of in-prison treatment beds means that only 1 to 5 percent of those who might benefit from treatment have a chance of receiving it. That represents a significant lost opportunity for the State to break the cycle of drug-addicted offenders who prey on the public after they are released -- and are ultimately returned to prison again and again for committing new crimes. One of the nation's leading drug treatment experts told the Commission:

The incarceration of persons found guilty of various crimes who are also chronic substance abusers presents a propitious opportunity for treatment. It is propitious because these persons would be unlikely to seek treatment on their own, without treatment they are extremely likely to continue their drug use and criminality after release, and we now have cost-effective technologies to effectively treat them while in custody and thus alter their lifestyles. (86)

Research over the past five years has proven that intensive treatment programs now available are highly successful at reducing recidivism among drug-addicted felons -- especially high risk offenders -- chronic heroin and cocaine users with long histories of predatory crime. Experts estimate these addict-offenders each commit 40 to 60 robberies a year, 70 to 100 burglaries and more than 4,000 drug transactions.(87)

National evaluations of "therapeutic community" drug treatment programs like those at the State's Donovan and Corcoran facilities, some based on nine years of follow-up data, show that high-risk offenders who complete both the treatment program and the community-based residential "aftercare" have a 25 percent lower recidivism rate than control groups, as measured in parole violations, arrests, convictions and re-incarceration. As the drug abuse expert cited above told the Commission: "I want to convey to you our conviction that this kind of program works."(88)

The drug treatment program at Donovan provides an example. That program, which is operated by Amity Foundation of California, began in 1989. Participants are hard-core felons with extensive criminal histories who have committed an average of 321 offenses over a lifetime. More than 70 percent have committed a violent crime, including assault, kidnaping, manslaughter and rape. Fifteen percent admit to having committed murder. The average participant in the program has spent more than half of his adult life in prison.

At the insistence of the Donovan warden, the Amity program was purposely designed to subject participants to the same kind of temptations to use drugs they are apt to confront when they leave prison. The 200 inmates in the drug treatment program therefore are not isolated from other prisoners.

They eat, work and share a yard with the general prison population, which consists of 800 other Level III inmates. Program participants take part in year-long intensive drug treatment activities for a minimum of twenty hours a week, often at night and on weekends in addition to their regular 36-hour-a week work assignments. After release from prison participants are offered the chance to continue treatment in a community residential facility in Vista, California. About 35 percent participate in the aftercare program.

A rigorous evaluation of the Amity-Donovan program funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found the program to have impressive results. One year after release from prison only 17 percent of those who completed both the in-prison program and the community-based aftercare component were re-incarcerated, compared to 66 percent of a control group who received no treatment. Among those who went through the in-prison program but did not complete aftercare, 35 percent were re-incarcerated.(89)

The warden at Donovan, initially skeptical of the program, reported his surprise over the results when he ordered an unannounced urine test for Amity participants:

I knew that I had two hundred guys with serious drug problems all living together, and not isolated from the main yard. We were busting guys on the yard for drugs, so I knew that if the guys in Amity wanted to get drugs, they could. I assumed that 25 percent of the people in the Amity program would turn up "dirty."(90)

Instead, only one Amity participant tested positive for drugs in that test. A second surprise urine screening in Fall 1996 found not a single positive test among the 214 Amity inmates. Drug testing of those participating in the Vista program after release from prison has yielded similar results.

Potential Savings from Drug Treatment

The Legislative Analyst's Office has estimated that modest expansions of the drug treatment program could save the State millions of dollars a year. The LAO calculated in May 1997 that extending substance abuse treatment to an additional 5,000 inmates could save $40 million a year in prison operating costs and $110 million in one-time capital outlay expenses by reducing the need for prison beds. Extending treatment to serve an additional 10,000 inmates over those served today would increase the savings to $80 million in annual operating costs and $210 million in one-time capital outlay.(91)

Those figures take into account only prison costs. Even more significant are the economic and social savings that could be captured from these offenders abandoning criminal behavior. An economist who analyzed the Amity program using National Institute of Justice data estimated that in the year before the last incarceration participants were on average each responsible for $93,000 in emergency room visits, jail costs, welfare payments for children, court expenses and other costs.

Calculated over a criminal career, unless reformed those felons could be expected to cost society more than $1.5 million. With many of those offenders third-strike candidates, the cost of the next incarceration alone could directly cost the State more than $500,000 per offender.(92)

Targeting the most intensive drug treatment programs such as the therapeutic community model to the most severe offenders promises to yield the most benefit. These chronic heroin and cocaine users, who represent between 3 and 10 percent of all offenders, not only are responsible for high levels of serious and violent crime, but are also highly likely to recidivate. The Commission was told:

Without intervention this group will return to crime and drug use nine times out of ten after release, and will be back in custody within three years. With appropriate intervention applied for a sufficient duration, more than three out of four will succeed, i.e., reenter the community and subsequently lead a socially acceptable life.(93)

For less severe drug offenders and for non-drug offenders, relatively low-cost "cognitive skills" programs can make an even more dramatic difference. These programs, which incorporate a range of social, vocational and literacy training components along with treatment of psychological and psychiatric problems, have been shown to reduce recidivism by 40 to 50 percent. One of the most respected of these program models, "reasoning and rehabilitation" can be provided for $400 a year per inmate, not including the cost of training staff. The program consists of 50 sessions completed over 25-40 weeks and can be accomplished in prison or in a community-based day reporting center or other facility.(94)

CDC's acting director told the Commission that the department "has steadfastly supported substance abuse treatment for offenders."(95) But the department has been slow to put treatment beds in place. While the department added the Corcoran facility in the 1997-98 budget, it also opposed a bill introduced in 1997 that would have added 8,000 new therapeutic community drug abuse treatment beds over the next five years. In explaining its opposition the department declared:

It would not be programmatically or fiscally prudent to rapidly expand this program prior to an evaluation to ensure that the treatment model, when operated in this larger scale, continues to result in lower parole revocation rates. (96)

One other state, Texas, has implemented prison-based drug treatment on a grand scale. Expansion of in-prison drug treatment, however is constrained by a shortage nationally of professional staff trained in effective drug treatment techniques.

The Perils and Opportunities of Parole

Deficiencies in the State's prison system carry over to parole. Because inmates receive little in the way of education, job training and other preparation for release, parolees arrive on the street with little hope of integrating into the community. According to CDC, 70 to 80 percent of parolees are unemployed, 85 percent are substance abusers, 50 percent are illiterate, 10 percent are homeless, and 60 to 90 percent lack basic survival skills.(97) Yet the parole system, overwhelmed with the number of offenders coming out of prison, has few services to offer.

As a result, California's record of parolee success is dismal. Two out of three of the State's parolees fail parole and return to prison within two years. Parole violators make up a far greater percentage of prison admittees in California than in any other state.

In 1995, 60 percent of those admitted to the State's prisons were parole violators. By comparison, in New York the figure is 22 percent. In Texas, the state most comparable in prison population to California, the figure is 29 percent.(98)

The cost of re-incarcerating parole violators is substantial. The department estimates the costs of returning a parolee to prison
for violating the conditions of release at $3,400. Those are only direct CDC costs, and assume that the inmate is housed in an over-crowded, low-security facility for 4.3 months.

But as the system reaches capacity, those inexpensive beds disappear, raising the costs of housing short-term low-security inmates. The Legislative Analyst, for instance, estimates the costs of holding a low-security inmate for four months to be closer to $9,000.(99) If the parole violator is sent to one of the private prisons already under contract, the typical per diem is $39 a day -- or more than $5,000 for a 129-day stay. And that bill does not include many other direct costs to the State, such as transportation and processing.

And given the large numbers of technical parole violators, the aggregate cost is substantial. Assuming CDC's average per inmate incarceration cost and assuming that technical parole violators comprise 26 percent of the population, the annual
costs of housing parolees who were returned to custody tops $500 million.

It is possible that California does a better job of catching parole violators than other states, but indications are that the State's high parolee return rate stems not from efficient supervision but from a combination of program deficiency in prisons and a failure to provide parolees with needed services once they are released.

How Parole Works

Inmates sentenced under the State's determinate sentencing law are automatically released on parole when they have served the time specified in the original sentence, minus work-time credits. Parole terms are shorter than they were under indeterminate sentencing -- parolees serve no more than four years, with most serving one to three years.

Those who fail parole can only be re-incarcerated for up to one year. Parole violators -- those who have not committed a new crime, but who are guilty of not abiding by parole conditions -- can only be returned to custody for four months.

Within CDC, the Institutions Division is responsible for operating the 33 prisons. Supervising inmates when they are released falls to the Parole and Community Services Division, which consists of 118 parole offices in 64 locations throughout California, divided into four regions.

As of March 1997 parolees under supervision in California numbered 101,910. The State has approximately 1,200 parole agents to handle that caseload -- about one agent for every 85 parolees.(100) That compares to a national average of one agent for every 70 parolees. The number of parolees is expected to grow by 5,000 a year over the next five years.

Because parole offices cannot closely monitor such large numbers of parolees, CDC has developed a triage process that divides parolees into three supervision categories, depending on perceived risk:

Preparation for release in most cases is minimal to non-existent. According to CDC regulations, at least three months before release, an inmate's options for housing and employment must be assessed and compiled into a "field file." CDC claims these files are prepared on time in 95 percent of all cases.

Based on that information and a risk assessment, a parole agent recommends the conditions of parole to be set and determines what level of supervision the parolee will receive. The parole office unit supervisor reviews the agent's recommendations and sets the parole conditions. A copy is furnished to the inmate before release.

All parolees must comply with a list of standard conditions, which areshown in the box to the right. In addition to the standard conditions, the parole agent and unit supervisor can impose special parole conditions, depending on the individual case. Special conditions for substance abusers, for example, usually include periodic drug testing.

The most common reason for failing parole and being returned to custody is for drug use, and parole officials believe that drug abuse is a contributing factor in many other revocations.

The Purpose of Parole

The Legislature in 1976, declared a broad and important purpose for parole:

The Legislature finds and declares that the period immediately following incarceration is critical to successful reintegration of the offender into society and to positive citizenship. It is in the interest of public safety for the state to provide for the supervision of and surveillance of parolees and to provide educational, vocation, family and personal counseling necessary to assist parolees in the transition between imprisonment and discharge.(102)

Despite legislative intentions, however, the State's commitment to providing supervision and services for parolees falls short. The Department of Corrections has concentrated $34 million in budget cutbacks in its parole services in recent years, making for fewer parole agents to handle increasing caseloads. And with repeat offenders feeding the number of parolees in the system, CDC is hard-pressed to provide services. As one department spokesperson told the Commission, "We're drowning in parolees."(103)

When inmates leave prison they are given $200 and a bus ticket back to the county where they were convicted. They also are taken to the bus depot, where a corrections officer waits until they get on the bus. What additional help they receive depends on individual need and on the services available at the particular parole office.

Parole agents hand out vouchers for food and for used clothing. But for most services CDC refers parolees to outside providers and to community service agencies for emergency relief, such as short-term room and board or community health clinics. In rural areas such services may be few and in urban areas, city and county agencies often compete with parole services for beds. The department also maintains a few contracts with counties and nonprofit organizations to provide re-entry services to parolees -- counseling, drug abuse treatment, detoxification, emergency lodging, and other services to parolees.

The Department does not keep records of the number of parolees who receive services each year or which services are provided. But observers estimate that of the 110,000 parolees released in 1996-97, fewer than 10,000 received help finding a job. Fewer than 10 percent receive pre-release services to help them prepare for re-entry.(104)

An example of these services is the Jobs Plus program. The program combines social services with job placement, serving parolees through six community-based subcontractors in 18 parole offices and 23 institutions throughout California. Services provided include pre-employment training and placement assistance, clean and sober workshops, work clothing and tools, transportation, meals and housing.

The program is outcome-based: Providers receive $500 for every parolee they help find a job. In 1996-97, the program placed 947 parolees in jobs and reports that recidivism for the program's employed participants is only 3.5 percent. Yet, despite its success -- and even though officials say the program could serve three times more parolees without changing its structure -- CDC continues to fund the program to serve only 1,000 inmates a year.(105)

Opportunities for Improvement

Research at the national level in just the past five years has proven that treatments work in reducing recidivism and has identified which components are needed in effective programs. That research provides the framework for program design. Program components important to success include:

The sheer weight of prison population numbers has produced near-unanimous agreement that more should be done to keep offenders from committing new crimes. The Legislative Analyst's Office, the Governor's Blue Ribbon Commission on Inmate Population Management, and the State Controller's Office have all called for improved programs and services to reduce the State's high recidivism rates. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, in its report, Meeting the Challenge of Affordable Prisons, joined that chorus:

California has one of the nation's worst records when it comes to parolees being returned to prison for new offenses. This number could be dramatically reduced -- and significant tax money could be saved -- if a better job were done helping paroled inmates return to society.... Improved reentry programs should used to smooth the transition from prison by helping inmates obtain Social Security cards and drivers' licenses, and by identifying prospective employers, housing and vocational training opportunities.(106)


Officials from CDC have been so preoccupied with burgeoning prison populations that the prison system has not adequately implemented efforts that could decrease that population growth by reducing ex-cons from committing additional crimes once released. With documented treatment tools available, a proven track record with a state prison, and solidifying political will the time is right to complete the job of protecting public safety by keeping criminals who have served prison terms from committing new crimes against the community.

Recommendation 3: The Governor and the Legislature should enact legislation providing prison inmates and parolees with the programs and services, such as drug treatment and cognitive skills programs, that are known to reduce recidivism in a cost-effective manner.

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