The Case for Reentry Courts
California Lawyer

The Case for Reentry Courts

by Eamon Kircher-Allen

November 2012


illustration by Jean-Françcois Martin

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As California's prison realignment program pushes inmates into local jails, many counties have been forced to consider new approaches to criminal rehabilitation. One option is reentry courts that steer some parole violators into court supervision rather than jail cells.

In 2009, the California Legislature approved $10 million for a three-year pilot program in six counties that was modeled loosely on drug courts. As the pilot concludes, some proponents argue that the experiment should be scaled up to a statewide level as an answer to California's chronically high rate of recidivism. But continuation or expansion will depend on each county's priorities and the availability of funding.

"It's a model for the state," says superior court Judge Stephen V. Manley, who presides over the reentry court in Santa Clara County. "Under statute, it's an alternative to jailing violators."

Supporters of reentry courts insist that they have sharply reduced parolee recidivism rates, though the programs are mostly too new to have produced supporting evidence. In cash-strapped San Joaquin County, superior court Judge Richard A. Vlavianos says the court has made a dramatic difference. Seventy-eight percent of parolees released in the county during the 2006-07 fiscal year returned to prison within three years because of parole violations or new offenses. Although there's no comparable data for the pilot program, Vlavianos says that since its inception in 2009 just 13 percent of his county's parolees have picked up new charges.

A parole agent can send a violator to reentry court instead of jail if the parolee has substance abuse or mental health issues and displays a high likelihood of reoffending. In the court, a team that might include the judge, parole agents, probation officers, a public defender, prosecutor, and a psychologist initially meets with the parolee for weekly updates, developing strategies to keep him from further lapses.

In Santa Clara, Judge Manley's reentry court also takes people under supervision for post-parole probation, as well as those under mandatory supervision, as part of their sentencing - responsibilities that are new with realignment. Similarly, San Joaquin County has used a sizeable chunk of its state realignment funds to establish an additional probation court, modeled on the reentry court. Manley reckons that in other counties existing drug courts could be converted into parolee courts.

"This to me is a partnership that needs to take place," Manley says. "It's the only place where you can find everybody - states, counties, and courts - working together."

Though proponents say reentry court saves tens of thousands of dollars compared with the $45,000 it costs to house an average California inmate for a year, the courts do require an investment from counties. So far, that money has come from state grants, but it hasn't always been enough: San Francisco shut down its otherwise successful reentry court last year because of funding concerns.

"We believe that reentry courts are fundable under AB 109," Sharon Aungst of California Forward, a nonpartisan policy think tank, writes in an email. "However, they are competing with other evidence-based programs." Of course, it will take time for each county and court to determine their particular needs as they implement AB 109, which along with AB 117 put into practice California's realignment program. "The devil is in the details," says Aungst.

Reader Comments

john - June 3, 2013
Judge Stephen Manly at the Terraine courthouse in San Jose California is forcing medication on inmates, setting up mentally ill inmates for failure by expecting them to complete programs and classes etc. on their own and when they fail to do so he issues bench warrants for their arrest and keeps them stuck in the system, and does not provide the proper evaluation of inmates for mental health. He is keeping mentally ill people in jail and trapped within the system for much longer than the crime they committed calls for, up to 3 years in some cases for minor drug charges. He ignores evaluations done by professional psychiatrists outside of his program, he ignores the letters and grievances of the family's and lawyers of the mentally ill and tries to force the same plan of action on every person instead of evaluating each individual case, he is punishing people for being ill not for the crime. He knows that the expectations he is putting on mentally ill inmates cannot be followed through by certain individuals yet he continues to recommend treatment plans that will just put the person back into jail. The Eighth Amendment (Amendment VIII) to the United States Constitution is the part of the United States Bill of Rights (ratified December 15, 1791[1]) prohibiting the federal government from imposing excessive bail, excessive fines or cruel and unusual punishments, including torture. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that this amendment's Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause applies to the states. there is also a competence law see below In American law, competence concerns the mental capacity of an individual to participate in legal proceedings. Defendants that do not possess sufficient "competence" are usually excluded from criminal prosecution, In United States law, this protection has been ruled by the United States Supreme Court to be guaranteed under the due process clause. If the court determines that a defendant's mental condition makes him unable to understand the proceedings, or that he is unable to help in his defense, he is found incompetent. The competency evaluation, as determined in Dusky v. United States, is whether the accused "has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding—and whether he has a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him." Being determined incompetent is substantially different from undertaking an insanity defense; competence regards the defendant's state of mind at the time of the trial, while insanity regards his state of mind at the time of the crime. It has also been referred to as a "730 exam". The word incompetent is also used to describe persons who lack mental capacity to make contracts, handle their financial and other personal matters such as consenting to medical treatment, etc. and need a legal guardian to handle their affairs. also please read this below In Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. 660 (1962), the Court decided that a California law authorizing a 90-day jail sentence for "be[ing] addicted to the use of narcotics" violated the Eighth Amendment, as narcotics addiction "is apparently an illness," and California was attempting to punish people based on the state of this illness, rather than for any specific act. The Court wrote: "To be sure, imprisonment for ninety days is not, in the abstract, a punishment which is either cruel or unusual. But the question cannot be considered in the abstract. Even one day in prison would be a cruel and unusual punishment for the 'crime' of having a common cold." Traditionally, the length of a prison sentence was not subject to scrutiny under the Eighth Amendment, regardless of the crime for which the sentence was imposed. It was not until the case of Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277 (1983), that the Supreme Court held that incarceration, standing alone, could constitute cruel and unusual punishment if it were "disproportionate" in duration to the offense. The Court outlined three factors that were to be considered in determining if the sentence is excessive: "(i) the gravity of the offense and the harshness of the penalty; (ii) the sentences imposed on other criminals in the same jurisdiction; and (iii) the sentences imposed for commission of the same crime in other jurisdictions.

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