Given the state's huge budget deficit and the prison-crowding crisis, community-based detention programs might seem to be just what's called for: They cost California less than half, per offender, than incarceration. But instead of expanding such programs, two have recently shut down.
For nearly a decade, Volunteers of America Los Angeles
(VOALA) ran two residential restitution centers?one for men, another for women?under contract to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
(CDCR). The centers let people convicted of small-time, white-collar crimes serve their sentences by working and turning their pay-checks over to the state: A third of the money went to pay restitution to victims; another third defrayed the cost of their housing; and the rest went into a trust fund to help offenders restart their lives upon release.
But the centers?the only two of their kind in the state?had empty beds, and VOALA was losing money. Jim Howat, VOALA's director of adult operations, asked CDCR to merge the two centers or admit white-collar criminals whose sentences exceeded three years, the existing cap. CDCR also wanted all the beds filled, but it lobbied for the centers to admit a more troublesome population: the parole violators that clog state prisons.
When no agreement was reached, CDCR suspended VOALA's contract in November. The following night, correctional officers arrived at the women's center. They searched the women, "put them in their prison garb, and took them outside, shackled," Howat says. The centers were shuttered before VOALA could notify the 50-odd residents' employers or families.
Scott Kernan, CDCR's undersecretary for operations, says most of the centers' residents will likely end up in other diversion programs, such as firefighting camps, or in a "minimum support facility" where, he says, housing prisoners is nearly as cheap as community-based programs. Yet it's costly to return the residents to prison even temporarily, according to Robert Weisberg, director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center.
Kernan acknowledges that even though "there are not sufficient alternative sanctions for inmates," the state's deep budget cuts make it unlikely that CDCR will expand community-based detention programs this year. But as UC Irvine criminologist Joan Petersilia warns, "You need more [community-based] facilities if you want to satisfy the courts and keep public safety in check."