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At Critical Time, Budget Ax Falls on Parole Courts

Models for inmate reform to be shuttered even as county jails take on thousands of new convicts

Judge Jeffrey Tauber stood in his San Francisco courtroom late last month and addressed more than 25 felons. “I’m truly apologizing that I’ve not been able to fulfill my commitment and promise to you,” he said.

The men, all serious offenders on state parole, had gathered to celebrate their progress in the San Francisco Parole Re-entry Court, a pilot program created to help them stay out of prison. Despite its 88-percent success rate, Tauber, who has led the program since it began in December, told them that the court had been shut down because of budget cuts.

The same week, another San Francisco pilot court program, the Probation Alternatives Court, which offers offenders rehabilitative services instead of incarceration, was notified that it would be closed at the end of the year, though it had kept 100 percent of its defendants out of prison.

The announcements came just days before Gov. Jerry Brown’s realignment of California’s criminal justice system took effect, on Oct. 1. The law transferred responsibility for thousands of convicts and parolees from the state system to county jurisdictions.

As counties statewide confront a shortage of jail space and programs to handle the influx of offenders, the decision to close the two courts, which are financed almost entirely by federal grants, has baffled some observers.

“One of the priorities of realignment is safe and effective re-entry back into the community,” said Jeff Adachi, the San Francisco public defender and a mayoral candidate. He called the closings a “huge mistake” at a “time when they are needed most.”

In a statement about the closings, San Francisco’s district attorney, George Gascón, said, “If we have programs that have proven they are more effective at preventing repeat offenses, we need to give them our highest priority.”

Court officials have said a lack of resources brought on by cutbacks to the courts last summer was to blame for the closings. Cynthia Ming-Mei Lee, an assistant presiding in San Francisco, called the decision to shut down the courts “torturous,” but said the system was spread too thin to keep them open.

“Each of these courts has a limited number of defendants,” she said. “We can’t take up a ’s time dealing with 30 people.”

Although budget cuts have led to 67 layoffs in San Francisco Superior Courts in recent months, the pilot programs have been staffed largely with retired court personnel and community workers, who will not be reassigned to other court positions. The money for Tauber comes from a fund not affected by the cuts. Lee said that despite the federal financing, the programs have cost the courts money for clerical work and other expenses, but that she did not know how much the closings would save.

Adachi said he understood the budgetary issues, but “these are not dollars that would otherwise supplant other positions.”

The closings also mean that San Francisco could lose roughly $1.5 million that was slated to keep the programs operating through 2012.

“If we do not accept the second year of funding, it will go back to the feds and be redistributed to another state,” said Wendy Still, chief probation officer of San Francisco, who has overseen the Probation Alternatives Court since it opened in January. Still said that none of the 35 participants in her program had returned to prison.

Only 12 percent of Tauber’s re-entry court parolees returned to state prison from December to August. Recent numbers from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation show that during the same period, more than 70 percent of San Francisco parolees not in the program did return to prison.

Tauber said he and his team achieved the low rate through job training, housing assistance and other help to fill the cracks through which parolees historically slip. They had barbecues and recognition ceremonies for accomplishments like employment, sobriety and community service.

“None of this is supposed to happen in a court of law,” Tauber said. “Courts can be a place where we can feel at home and like we belong.”

The wide range of parolee services that have been paid for by the federal grant are set to expire at the end of the month, and the court’s staff is scrambling to find options for its clients.

“I know that with the end of this court, this is all going to fall apart for them,” said Eric Roberts, one of the court’s case managers. “These are folks that live on the fringes of society, and they have very little support.”

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.

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