City heads ponder thousands of ex-cons in SF
September 27, 2007 9:40 AM
The Second Annual Reentry Summit of the Safe Communities Reentry Council was held on September 19 at SF State. The day long event was a discussion forum of activists, organizers, and local officials to explore strategies for aiding parolees in the transitional period after being released from prison.
The SCRC summit was keynoted by activist and author Luis Rodriguez, and Mayor Gavin Newsom provided introductory remarks. All panelists spoke on the need for reform in California prison systems.
“California has one of the highest recidivism rates in the nation,” said journalist JoAnn Mar, who moderated the day’s panel discussions. “And reentry programs may be one of the keys to solving that problem.”
The panels were made up of representatives from dozens of San Francisco reintegration programs, the California Department of Corrections and several state and local officials including Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, Sheriff Michael Hennessey, District Attorney Kamala Harris and Public Defender Jeff Adachi.
Harris named one program, Back on Track, as an example of effective work done by community organizations, saying it had reduced the recidivism rate of participating 18 to 24 year olds in San Francisco from 50 percent to 10 percent.
The SCRC was formed in 2005 by Mirkarimi and Adachi. The reentry summit, which is sponsored by the California Endowment and the San Francisco State Institute for Civic and Community Engagement, was created as a forum for community dialogue.
Of the 120,000 inmates released each year in California, 65 to 70 percent of them violate the terms of their parole conditions or commit a new crime, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
According to Mirkarimi, a daily average of 1,500 to 2,000 parolees are released into San Francisco.
“Our district attorney, Kamala Harris, is exhibit A in showing this city where to go,” Mirkarimi said.
California has a prison population of nearly 173,000, according to the CDCR. In 2006, more than 68,000 parolees were put back in prison for violating parole conditions.
“It’s no wonder that people who arrive at our institutions leave in worse shape than when they arrived,” said Marisela Montes, chief deputy secretary of adult programs at CDCR, in reference to the overcrowding of the state’s prisons.
Some of the programs highlighted were the No Violence Alliance (NoVA), spearheaded by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, which seeks to rehabilitate violent offenders by showing them the impact of their crimes and teaching anger management, and Project WHAT! (“We’re Here and Talking”), a youth-based organization for children and teens with incarcerated parents.
Although the majority of speakers said California may be shifting its approach to corrections toward a model that emphasizes reintegrating former prisoners into the population, most noted the difficulty in securing funds for transitional assistance programs.
“We’re really struggling for money right now,” said Heather Weigand, a former convict who graduated from SF State with honors in May 2007 and is now director of client services for Life After Exoneration, an aid and advocacy group for the wrongly convicted.
“Donors start wondering why the state and federal governments aren’t picking up the tab for those lives they’ve shattered.”
“About five percent of our budget goes into the programming and treatment of offenders,” said Marisela Montes, chief deputy secretary of adult programs at CDCR. “And that is abysmal.”
On a local level, however, most panelists agreed that correction programs were beginning to move in the right direction.
Jason Bell, director of SF State prisoner aid organization Project Rebound, and a former convict himself, praised government representatives for supporting the shift toward reintegration—”Even the D.A.!” he said, to laughter from District Attorney Kamala Harris.
Harris announced that her office was the first district attorney’s office in the country to create a reentry unit, and emphasized the importance of being able to communicate to people not engaged in parolee issues.
“There are a lot of people out there who don’t necessarily care about the people we care about,” she said. “But they do care about safe streets.”
Dan Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, and a lecturer on criminal justice at SF State, was blunt when he spoke as a panelist.
Of the approximately 56,000 CDCR employees, only 3,000 of them work in the area of parole, he said. Macallair stressed that a lack of a proper supportive parole system is a primary fault of California’s prison system, and said current reform legislation misplaces the focus.
AB 900, a “prison reform” bill that includes $7 billion in bonds for construction of new facilities, emerged as a point of contention among some participants.
“If AB 900 gets implemented, there’ll be no money left for all the wonderful programs we’re talking about here today,” Macallair said.
Montes disagreed, saying she supported AB900.
“I know some will say it doesn’t go far enough,” she said. “It includes the authority to create 1,600 reentry beds, and that is the promise of reform to me.”
Macallair cautioned, however, that California’s status quo would need to be altered for serious progress to be made.
“I think what we have to be aware of is political reality,” said Macallair.
POST A COMMENT
|BACK TO TOP|| |
Copyright © 2008 [X]press | Journalism Department - San Francisco State University