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Contra Costa Scrambles to Prepare for Prison Reform

 
Richmond police chief: “I don’t think my community has a hint of the tidal wave that’s coming”

“All of us are in frantic mode,” said Contra Costa County’s Chief Probation Officer Phil Kader. He spoke as he passed out a tentative budget to the 14 criminal justice and social service professionals who attended a recent budget meeting of the Public Safety Realignment Executive Committee for Contra Costa County.

On Oct. 1, AB 109, known as the Public Safety Realignment bill, will shift responsibility for people convicted of non-serious, nonviolent, non-sexual offenses to counties. The legislation was prompted by a Supreme Court ruling that California’s overcrowded prisons violated the constitutional rights of inmates by denying them adequate health care.

Kader became supervisor of the county’s realignment plans in June, as mandated by the state law.

“I see this as an extraordinary opportunity and an extraordinary challenge,” Kader said.

These discussions have brought together the disparate agencies that manage California’s convicts — mental health care and other service providers, sheriff’s deputies, judges, lawyers, probation officers and county administrators.

Prison realignment is a “culture change,” says Kader. “There are all kinds of new offenses that you can’t go to prison for.” The new law encourages counties to seek alternatives to lockup, including treatment for people who have underlying issues like addiction.

“The goal is twofold,” Kader said. “Money will obviously have to go to compliance. There is a whole slew of folks who will be kept locally and this is an amazing responsibility. We have to have adequate supervision and jail space to house the people who are going to be sentenced and not sent to prison. And we have to be aggressive with the delivery of services.”

Those returning from prison homeless, drug addicted or mentally ill, however, will find that slots for residential alcohol and drug treatment or psychiatric evaluations, and even shelter beds, are scarce.

“There are long waiting lists,” said Cynthia Belon, county director of Behavioral Health and Homeless Services. “You start to lose that window of opportunity if you tell someone to wait days or weeks.”

Belon and other advocates want to develop a “one-stop shop” to help people succeed with re-entry. The center wouldn’t provide all services on site, but could offer accurate information on services and eligibility requirements for assistance programs.

Currently, lack of transportation and information restrict access to social services. It is too common, for instance, for those with little money to go from place to place, only to discover they must return with this or that form.

Kader wants his probation officers to function as case managers, a transformation from law enforcement agent to re-entry link for returning prisoners. Kader adds, however, that it won’t be easy for the newly released to see their probation officer as an ally instead of an adversary, or “to get the message to our clients that we’re on their side and not there to send them back to jail.”

“This is a population who’s been alienated from services for a significant amount of time,” said Belon, who represents County Health Services on the committee. “Part of the skill set in working with people with chronic mental health and or drug issues is getting them to a place where they are wanting to seek services.”

Because Contra Costa imprisons fewer people than do most California counties, it also received less funding than counties that send people to state prison in higher numbers. Counties already pursuing alternatives to prison get punished financially, Kader said, echoing the complaint of probation chiefs in San Francisco and Alameda counties.

 

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