Alameda County Ahead of Curve with Realignment

CDC prisoners

CDC prisoners by glenn gould,

In May of 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that the conditions in California prisons were so horrendous that they violated protections against cruel and unusual punishment and ordered California to reduce its prison population by 35,000-40,000 inmates by 2013.

The order came at a time when the state budget could no longer afford the third-largest prison system in the world and the pressure was on to pass the responsibility to counties at a far lower cost. Another compelling reason was that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has failed at doing what it said it would do: rehabilitate prisoners.

Enter the Public Safety Realignment Act of November 2011: Individuals who commit nonviolent, non-serious, non-sex crimes will be sent to county jails instead of state prison. They will be supervised by each county’s Probation Department instead of California Department of Parole and parole violators will no longer be returned to state prison.

Realignment is the biggest shift in the criminal justice system in the past 25 years and criminal justice advocates around the country are watching to see how it plays out. Victor Rubin is vice president for Research at Policy Link – a national research institute based in Oakland.

“Realignment presents a potential for re-thinking the entire system of criminal justice,” Rubin said. “When the state gives a progressive county like Alameda the freedom and flexibility it needs, major changes can take place.”

But these changes can only take place if the county is innovative in how it deals with the new influx of offenders.

“Don’t just rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic,” recommends a report by Dr. Barry Krisberg at the University of California, Berkeley’s, School of Law. The report recommends ending unnecessary incarceration of people awaiting trial, increasing the use of diversion, alternative sentencing and the use of GPS monitoring, along with developing more of a restorative justice approach to crime.

“We operated in the spirit of realignment before realignment by sending fewer people to prison and by creating a strong re-entry program,”  John Keene, deputy chief probation officer for Adult Services, said. Alameda County had an added planning advantage over other counties because of the work that was done by the Alameda County Re-Entry Network in 2007. Their strategic plan advocated for more housing and employment support – all goals that fall in line with the intention of realignment.

Will the money be enough and in the right direction?

“Alameda County is ahead of the game in terms of planning, but the question is if there is enough money going to the right places to make the difference?” asked Junious Williams, the executive director of Oakland’s Urban Strategies Institute that oversaw the development of the strategic plan. “The majority of the money is going to the sheriff’s department and we need more discussion on creating alternatives to holding people in county jail.”

The sheriff and probation departments both agree that the formula, which determined how much money each county got, was severely flawed as it was based mostly on each county’s average daily number of state prison inmates.

“The formula should have been based on population then the crime rate, not on the number of people we had been sending to prison,” Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern said. Undersheriff Richard Lucia agreed.

“In essence, the county was penalized for not sending people to state prison,” Lucia said.

An ACLU report on realignment entitled “California at a Crossroads,” stated that Alameda County received $9.2 million with a 1.6 million population and a crime rate of 2.8 percent, while San Bernadino County received $25.8 million for 2.2 million population and a crime rate of 2.2 percent – almost two and half times what Alameda received.

Making the switch from parole to probation

It’s not just problems with the money formula that make realignment especially challenging. Some former inmates will not get access to the services they had when they were under parole.

“People assumed that we would just slap probation on top of what already existed for parolees, but that has not been the case,” Keene said. “The Department of Corrections had an extensive network to get substance abuse treatment and transitional housing to parolees, but that has changed because the probation department does not have contracts with those programs.”

Raynetta Lewis is the program coordinator at Medford House – a residential treatment program for the formerly incarcerated that serves many Oakland residents. The highly structured program offers everything from 12-Step meetings, non-violent communication and “cognitive restructuring,” which examines the thinking that contributes to criminality.

Lewis has already seen the downside of realignment.

“All newly released parolees are under supervision with the probation department and we don’t have a contract to serve them,” Lewis said. “I get dozens of calls from desperate men who can’t come here because they are no longer under parole. I hope they get this straightened out or a lot of these men aren’t going to get the treatment they need.”

According to Carissa Pappas, the management analyst at the Alameda County Probation Department, there were 558 new cases released to the department since realignment took effect in November 2011 and it is estimated that there will be more than 1,000 released by October of this year. It is not known how many of those individuals needed substance abuse treatment or transitional housing that was not available to them because they are now under probation supervision instead of parole.

“We didn’t have sufficient time to turn this ship around,” Keene said. “When parole left, they took all the maps, all the instructions on how to run the ship, they didn’t tell us where the gas station was and they said ‘by the way, we were already headed in this direction, good luck figuring out how to get back.’ So now we have the parolees in lifeboats on the side trying to catch and up and figure out which way to go. We are just trying to slow down the ship with legislative rewrites to fix some of the gaps.”

What constitutes success?

“If realignment is successful,” Sheriff Ahern said, “the numbers of arrests and re-offenses will decrease.”

Ahern said he would like to expand some of Santa Rita County Jail’s training programs that provide certificates in areas such as cosmetology and restaurant preparation along with basic education so offenders have better chances of being successful.

Even though the sheriff’s department received the lion’s share of the funds for the county, Ahern sees challenges ahead.

“Extra inmates mean extra housing,” he admitted. “We might get some inmates with 10-15 year sentences and our system is not designed for that. More people will need access to the jail and we need extra staff to provide security to escort them in and out.”

Deputy Chief Keene said that the biggest challenge for the probation department will be to streamline services with one point person making sure former inmate’s needs are addressed.

“The department’s new assessment tool looks at everything from anti-social thinking, education, substance abuse, relationships, housing, to job experience,” he said. “We are going to track what services each client received in order to see what effect it has on recidivism.”

Keene said that the probation department would be taking a more holistic approach: “We will ask the offender: Who are your supports? What are the underlying reasons for your criminality? What has been the impact of your custody on minor children? We want to help them build relationships because we know that helps them stay out of jail.”

And helping people stay out of jail is one of the major goals of realignment. “But,” said Policy Links’ Rubin, “We need to remember that this is not just a question of adding more services – it is an economic opportunity and jobs issue.”

In their commentary, “Looking at Realignment Through The Lens of Equity,” Rubin and Angela Blackwell emphasize, “This population endures the worst educational outcomes, the highest unemployment rates and health issues that threaten well-being and life expectancy and diminish the prospects for overcoming the other disparities. The consequences of poverty and the legacy of racism include very high rates of incarceration.”

Editor’s Note: Since 1984, the state has added 21 prisons raising the total to 33. In that same period, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the inmate population swelled from 24,000 to more than 160,000. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, most of the growth occurred between 1987 and 1998 as a result of tougher sentencing laws and policies such as the Three Strikes law. This led to a prison construction boom that was unparalleled anywhere else in the country, with California becoming the third-largest prison system in the world. Even with 33 prisons, California found itself facing a massive problem of overcrowding. Gymnasiums were transformed into housing units with triple-decker bunk beds and with as many as 54 men sharing one toilet.

Follow this 10-part series from the Index Page: Lessening the impact of incarceration in Oakland

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Lessening the Impact of Incarceration on Oakland – An Overview

Participants in the Insite Garden Progran at San Quentin, California

Participants in the Insite Garden Program at San Quentin, California,









California taxpayers foot the bill for one of the largest prison systems in the world.

The annual cost of incarcerating an inmate in 2010-11 was $48,895 and in 2012, it is estimated to rise to $55,527. The Department of Finance estimates that the average cost of parole supervision for 2011-12 was $7,616. But that is just the tip-of-the-iceberg in terms of the costs to entire communities in Oakland.

The cycling of mostly men of color through the California prison system and onto the streets of Oakland is a revolving door that impacts many families by having a brother, father, son or mother that has spent time in prison. In March 2012, there were 14,313 adults under supervision of the Probation Department in Alameda County and almost 70 percent of those were African American or Latino men.

“The imprisonment of men of color from disadvantaged places has grown to such a point that it affects families and children, institutions and business, social groups and interpersonal relationships,” says sociologist Todd Clear in his book, ‘Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse.’ Imprisonment has grown to the point that it produces the very social problems on which it feeds.”

Parts of East and West Oakland that are most impacted by poverty, crime and chronic health problems are the same communities that absorb the majority of the formerly incarcerated. And that population returns with few resources: they are barred from receiving some types of government assistance like food stamps; they often cannot benefit from public housing; they are denied student loans and they cannot vote. They have just spent, on average, one to three years in an extremely controlled environment that often fosters aggression, isolation and emotional withdrawal, to name just a few of the psychological impacts of incarceration.

The formerly incarcerated often need support with housing and employment upon re-entry. The unemployment rate in Alameda County is hovering a little below 11 percent, but according to Louis King at the Private Industry Council, that rate is closer to 60-70 percent for the formerly incarcerated, many of who have never had steady employment. These challenges often become insurmountable obstacles leading to the revolving door back to crime and prison.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 65.1 percent of inmates returned to prison within the first three years after being released during 2006-07. For those who had served time twice, a staggering 76.4 percent return to prison within three years. Alameda County’s three-year recidivism rate is lower than the state average at 62.9 percent, but these numbers indicate a massive failure of “rehabilitation.” Kevin Grant, the Violence Prevention Network Coordinator for Measure Y said, “If almost seven out of 10 vehicles had to return to the shop because they were not fixed, that place would be shut down.”
In May 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prison overcrowding in California violated protections against cruel and unusual punishment and ordered the state to reduce the inmate population by 35,000-40,000 by 2013. In 2011, the legislature passed The Public Safety Realignment Act to reduce the prison population and to lessen the number of low-level inmates cycling in and out of state prisons. Under realignment, most offenders convicted of non-violent, non-serious and non-sexual offenses will serve time in county jail rather than state prison and parole violators will no longer be returned to prison for violations.

But the intention of realignment is not just to reduce the California’s prison population. Even prior to the latest budget crisis, California was having problems managing the costs of massive incarceration. Not only will it be more cost effective to have local governments manage offenders, but also counties have the potential of doing a much better job of reducing recidivism and creating community based alternatives to incarceration.

If realignment is going to work, Alameda County will have to do something different to break the vicious cycle of crime and imprisonment and release and return that destabilizes many Oakland communities. Whether it will be increasing the use of diversion, expanding restorative justice, increasing drug treatment, adding more housing and job support or focusing more on the family as an ingredient in re-entry, realignment presents an opportunity to address what creates and sustains crime and criminality.

This series will put a face on the formerly incarcerated, examine the obstacles they face upon re-entry and bring the impacts on their families and children into the limelight while looking at the opportunities and challenges that realignment presents.


Follow this 10-part series from the Index Page: Lessening the impact of incarceration in Oakland

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Restorative Justice in Oakland: Profile of Fania Davis

I started an interest in Restorative Justice over 15 years ago and attended a conference that opened my eyes to this powerful healing alternative to the punitive and non-rehabilitative approach to criminal justice that currently exists. My interest was derailed by a lengthy illness, but many years later, I return to the issue as a writer. The moment I first realized that Fania Davis, the executive director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, was Angela Davis’s sister, was powerful for me. I vividly recalled the early 1970’s in the Bay Area when Angela’s trial and the entire prison movement was on the front burner. I knew enough about the revolutionary Black Nationalist Movement to know that Fania Davis had gone through many profound changes to arrive at the point she was now: head of an organization whose philosophy is deeply rooted in non-violence and the healing potential of forgiveness and reconciliation. As Davis says in my recent article, “Our greatest security is not in more arrests and suspensions, but in creating healthier families, schools, and communities,” she says. “Harmed people harm people. Healed people heal people. If we are to interrupt the cycle of violence we need a justice that heals.”

“You can read the entire article in The Monthly.”

The U.S. imprisons far more people per capita than any other developed country in the world. The billions we pay towards this approach could best be spent on alternatives like Restorative Justice.

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Open Records for Adoptees on Huffington Post

We Need A 21st Century Adoption Dialog

Hundreds of families came together on National Adoption Day in November to finalize adoptions from the foster care system. These celebrations rightfully honored adoptive families and supported the placement of some of the 115,00 children awaiting placement. National media paid ample attention to these events.

But the story that the media does not adequately cover is that roughly six million adult adoptees are denied the right to information about their own identities through the archaic laws that exist in most states. Adoption reform organizations such as the American Adoption Congress support legislation that gives adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates without restrictions or limitations. Who among us would want to have the most intimate knowledge about our origins withheld from us? Knowing you who are and where you have come from is a basic human need and an essential civil right.

The adoption community that is made up of public and private agencies, attorneys and social workers, frequently relate to adoptive parents as their primary stakeholders. But alongside that community, in what often seems like a parallel universe, are the interests of adult adoptees. Their voices that need to be heard, for surely they are the central stakeholders in adoption. Let’s encourage a national conversation that privileges all corners of the adoption triangle: the adoptive parents, the birth parents and the adoptees themselves.

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Helping Families of Homicide Victims in Oakland CA

Jimon Clark was thirteen years old and about to start high school when he was gunned down in August in East Oakland. He was the sixth homicide victim within the previous week making it one of the more horrific weeks of violence in a year that had already seen over 40 homicides.

Every one of those murders has a rippling effect on families who have dealt with the loss of a brother, a cousin, an uncle, a father or a sister. The trauma that people feel when they are impacted by a homicide can lead to even more violence, but a unique partnership in Oakland has been trying to interrupt that cycle. The problem is that the Crisis Response and Support Network services offered jointly by the Khadafy Foundation and Catholic Charities of the East Bay are at risk for losing the bulk of their funding due to recent budget cuts.

Marilyn Harris knows all too well about the needs of the families who have been affected by homicide. Harris’s 18-year-old son Khadafy had just graduated from high school when he was killed while riding his bicycle in West Oakland on August 4, 2000.

In the midst of her grief, Harris sought out other mothers who had lost children to violence and began to offer them support. It soon became clear that families needed more than bereavement support. Harris decided to form the Khadafy Foundation in her son’s honor to offer assistance to every family in Oakland that has lost a loved one to violence.

Over the past ten years, the Khadafy Foundation has offered support groups; organized victims’ marches, developed outreach to youth, and attended hundreds of funerals. In 2004, the Foundation offered its first annual luncheon for mothers who have lost youth to violence: 25 families were invited and 52 showed up. Parents often call Harris for advice. “Sometimes they want support about what to do on the anniversary of the death or what to tell the younger siblings who are in extreme pain from the sudden departure of their older sibling.”

Like others in the field, Harris recognizes that witnessing repeated violence can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. “Many families in our community are affected by violence, but it is not looked at with the same urgency as families that are affected by war. But it’s a war right here in Oakland and some families cannot pick themselves up again after they have experienced an act of deadly violence.”

Myesha Walker has worked at Kahadafy for two years as a Crisis Responder and frequently accompanies Harris when they are called to a crime scene after a homicide, whether it is 4:00 P.M. or 4:00 A.M. “If people who witness violence are not listened to, they internalize it; they turn to alcohol, drugs, or anger.” Harris chimed in, “If you don’t take care of that anger, guess what? Anger breeds more anger and violence and if they don’t take it to the streets, they take it to their families. And that cycle goes around and around.”

It is precisely that cycle of violence that Mille Burns, deputy director of programs for Catholic Charities of the East Bay, is trying to address. Catholic Charities works in partnership with Khadafy Foundation and is part of Oakland’s Measure Y Violence Prevention Program. Burns said, “Our crisis team makes contact with the family at the crime scene or within the first 24 hours. Our intervention might include case management, benefits assistance, help with housing, relocation, and grief and trauma counseling.”

Burns agrees that the cumulative effects of witnessing violence can lead to PTSD. “Loss of empathy, increased aggression, substance abuse, loss of impulse control, sudden violent outbursts – all of these are symptoms that we see in our kids and then we wonder, ‘why are they acting like that?’ Studies have shown that if you are between the ages of 15-24 in East Oakland, you have been personally impacted by knowing five or more people who have been murdered.”

While it may be obvious that exposure to violence is traumatic, Burns states that the effects are not always recognized as trauma. “When deadly violence is a norm, kids are not running home and saying, ‘Mom guess what, a kid in my class was shot last night!’ Mom might only find out when the son cuts school to go to the funeral. We may not be honoring the death or we may be blaming the victim. So first we have to give credence to their grief and loss.”

Rudy Smith is a Social Worker who has served as a counselor for families dealing with a homicide. “Here’s the situation: Pookie just got murdered. He may have been doing any number of good or not so good things. So when Pookie gets killed, some say he shouldn’t have been hanging out at 2:00 A.M. Some judge the kid and the kid’s family. But when an African American counselor like myself visits the families in their living room and says, ‘tell me what happened and how are you doing,’ they are very appreciative.”

Smith noted the discrepancy between how Oakland has dealt with victims who reside in the violence-prone areas of Oakland and those who do not. “Kids that come from families with pre-existing pathologies: an alcoholic father or siblings in trouble, they often don’t get as much in the way of support. I saw a young woman who was lying in bed with her two year-old daughter when there was gang activity on the street. There was shooting and a bullet went through the stucco home, hit her in the head and killed her. The child was sleeping right next to her. But it was seen as another case of an East Oakland family where ‘these things happen,’ when in fact, she was an innocent victim too.”

Harris also takes issue with some of the stereotypes of those who are killed on the streets. “My husband and I both worked for the government and my son still got killed.” Pointing to the photos of the 150 mostly youth that have been killed in the last 5 years in Oakland, Harris said, “Some of these people were working-class people. Not everybody getting killed is dealing drugs or committing felonies. Sometimes stories in the paper seem to be saying, ‘they had a record so they might have deserved it.’ But guess what? Nobody deserves to be killed.”

Harris looks at the photos of Oakland’s mostly young homicide victims on the walls of her office every day and thinks of them as sons, brothers, and nephews. “I want people to know the truth about Oakland. The truth is that this victim’s mother loved him and that she will never see her son grow up. That is the truth for his mother. The truth for the police might be, ‘we have arrested him for felony robbery,’ that is the police truth – it’s still true, but do I want to get to know who this son was? Do I want to try to save his children from becoming a victim like he was? We know the cycle can be broken, but we have to start with the younger kids not sixth grade, not third grade, but first grade.”

Burns at Catholic Charities is emphatic that in order to honor the gravity of the community’s grief and loss, their trauma has to be understood. “We have worked with families that have lost two-three family members to violence. So in parts of Oakland, you have a traumatized community where people are fearful and withdrawn, they’re hyper vigilant so the bars go up, the dogs come out, the anger is there and the fear is omnipresent.”

Catholic Charities and the Khadafy Foundation have developed strong relationships with the Oakland Police Department so they are immediately notified when a homicide takes place. They also collaborate with the Oakland Unified School District so no student loss is overlooked. “When we identify students that have been impacted by a homicide, we alert the schools. The principal might visit the family, circles of support will be formed, and counseling will be available for classmates and faculty members.”

“The murders in Oakland are social disgraces,” Burns said, “but underlining those disgraces, we need to recognize the overarching effects of economic oppression coupled with pervasive racism that has allowed vital social systems to falter and fall apart. We would all love to see a city where an act of violence is shocking where a murder is front-page news.” But in order to get there, Burns said, “We have to engage the community in an understanding that this is not just an issue for the police or the prisons. It is an issue for all of us.”

Engaging the community is exactly what these organizations are trying to do as they face the threat of losing funding. Both Burns and Harris are fighting to keep their programs alive as are many of the other programs that receive almost 20 million dollars in violence prevention monies including the Family Justice Center that serves domestic violence victims and teens victims of sexual trafficking, and Youth Uprising and Youth Alive which offers alternatives to gang life.

Even under these circumstances, Marilyn Harris has room in her still healing heart for hope. But she also understands that a violent death leaves a hole that can never be completely healed. “Healing doesn’t mean that you are recovered. Most families that are impacted by homicide are never completely healed. I have not gotten over it I have not gotten through it. I am in a point in my life that I can tolerate the pain better, but that is all it is.” Only a surviving mother can offer that kind of understanding to families who have lost their children to violence.

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Adoption Laws Need To Move into the 21st Century

Hundreds of courts and families came together on National Adoption Day on November 20th to finalize adoptions from the foster care system. These celebrations rightfully honored adoptive families and supported the placement of some of the 115,00 children who are awaiting placement. National media paid attention to these events.

What the media did not cover is that roughly six million adult adoptees are denied the right to information about their own identities through the archaic laws that exist in most states. Adoption stories often gloss over the challenges adoptees face as they attempt to piece together their identity from the scant information they are given.

Our national dialog does not adequately reflect the truth about adoption: the considerable psychological challenges for all members of the adoption triad, the continuing controversies about transracial adoption, or the increasing legislative efforts to open records. The adoption world of public and private agencies, attorneys, and social workers, often relates to adoptive parents as their primary stakeholders. But alongside that community, in what seems like a parallel universe, are the interests of adult adoptees. It is their voices that need to be heard for surely they are the central stakeholders in adoption.

Adoption reform organizations such as the American Adoption Congress support legislation that gives adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates without restrictions or limitations. Who among us would want to have the most intimate knowledge about our origins withheld from us? Knowing you who are and where you have come from is a basic human need and an essential civil right. Let’s encourage a deepening national conversation that privileges all corners of the adoption triangle: the adoptive parents, the birth parents and the adoptees themselves.

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