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.