Parolee program to shut its doors


By Bay City News Service

An East Palo Alto program that has helped hundreds of state prison parolees transition back to life in the community will shut its doors on Wednesday (June 30) - but only temporarily, if administrators have their way.

Funding for the pilot program, which was created in 2007 through a bill by Assemblyman Ira Ruskin, D-Redwood City, is set to expire this week but negotiations are under way to expand the program and revive it in the fall.

One of the people who helped shape the program was David Lewis, a former state prison inmate-turned-community leader whose shooting murder outside the Hillsdale Shopping Center in San Mateo earlier this month has rocked the community.

Lewis acted as an adviser to Police Chief Ron Davis on the issue of re-entry, and Davis said his influence was key in crafting the program. A nonprofit Davis co-founded, Free at Last, which provides substance abuse treatment and other services, is one of the program's sub-contractors.

Rodney Gray, a parole administrator for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said the state is in talks with Davis on the program's future.

"We're working hand-in-hand to make it a better, stronger program than it was before," Gray said. "We're going to expand it out somewhat."

If everything falls into place, the hope is to restart it in September or October and have it serve parolees throughout San Mateo County rather than just East Palo Alto.

Davis said that at its peak, the program served up to 65 parolees at a time. The new version could accommodate up to 300 participants a year, he said. The idea is to create a more cost-efficient model that would use similar resources to serve more parolees.

The East Palo Alto program is one of several such programs, called Community Based Coalitions, throughout the state funded by the CDCR that help walk parolees through the often rocky process of re-entering society after incarceration.

In East Palo Alto's case, the program is a partnership between the CDCR and the Police Department, which contracts with local nonprofits to provide services such as transitional housing, substance abuse treatment, anger management classes, vocational training and job search help.

While it's too early to calculate the program's recidivism rate, Davis said the "return-to-custody rate," or the rate at which participants find themselves back in jail, is about 20 percent.

That is a fraction of the state's recidivism rate, which the governor's website states is 70 percent but California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Peggy Bengs estimated is now closer to 60 percent.

"You're giving people a second chance and they're taking advantage of it, which goes to the core values of the community," Davis said. In the past three years, murders are down by 29 percent in East Palo Alto and overall crime has dropped by 16 percent, Davis said. Relations between police and the community have improved, he said.

"The Police Department is now a part of healing, not just enforcement," he said. Davis said East Palo Alto's program provides a unique model for how cities can partner with the state to work with parolees. He said he believes it could "ultimately define the role of local police and communities in re-entry."

"We reduce prison costs," he said.

The impetus for the pilot program was the 2006 murder of East Palo Alto police Officer Richard May by parolee Alberto Alvarez, Davis said. The killing brought together city and community leaders, county supervisors and Ruskin, and the program was born.

Davis said the Police Department and the CDCR are hammering out the details of a new three-year contract in which the state will pay about $950,000 per year to fund the expanded program - roughly the same annual cost as the pilot.

The CDCR's price tag is staying about the same because an influx of federal stimulus dollars is allowing East Palo Alto to offer to absorb some costs by providing a police officer, an administrative facility and vehicles, Davis said.

That will enable the state to pay for things like hiring more counselors, Davis said. In the pilot program, classrooms had empty seats; the new program would operate at capacity, he said.

"Now we'll be as efficient as any program you've got, except it's being run locally and has Police Department oversight," Davis said. "It's the best of both worlds."

Talks are also under way to continue a separate, $1 million component of the program in which parolees perform work for Caltrans and are put on a track to be hired permanently with the agency, but the fate of that aspect is unclear.

Both Davis and Gray said the plans to renew the parolee program are moving forward, but each pointed out the uncertainty related to the state's fiscal problems.

"The only thing that would curtail this is if something came down budget-wise and this got slashed among other things," Gray said. "Right now, we are full steam ahead on bringing this program up."

Gray said the process to restart the program will likely take at least several months, meaning there will be a gap in services for participants, who will be referred to a number of local organizations to keep them on track to reintegrate.

Case manager Delores Farrell said program staff have been putting together "exit plans" for the parolees to help them navigate life's challenges with less of a support structure for a few months.

Farrell said she is optimistic at their chances of success.

"They've got enough skills to get through this period of time," she said.

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