Homeless parolees weigh on California counties

Saturday - 7/5/2014, 3:24am EDT

GILLIAN FLACCUS
Associated Press

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) -- Gov. Jerry Brown based his recent overhaul of the state corrections system in part on the idea that having those convicted of lower-level crimes supervised by county probation officers instead of state parole agents when they are released would help them stay clean, find jobs and avoid committing new crimes.

A cornerstone of the law's success is housing, yet county probation officers throughout the state say homelessness continues to undermine their ability to help ex-cons rehabilitate, get drug treatment and find jobs. Some California counties report that up to one in five of the parolees they supervise under the governor's realignment law is homeless.

"You've got somebody and ... they're gang-involved, you want to get them in classes, but they live under a bridge," said Andrew Davis, an analyst with the Santa Cruz County Probation Department. "They're not going to show up; they don't know what day of the week it is."

Counties across the state are dealing with the problem in different ways. Many are trying a patchwork of solutions as they adapt.

In Marin County, probation officers sometimes pick homeless parolees up at the prison gates and pay for motel rooms until they can find a bed. Santa Cruz County has contracted with local homeless shelters, a move that stirred controversy last year.

Homeless parolees in Riverside County are required to check in at an electronic kiosk and have their photo taken daily. In San Diego County, where nearly 400 former prison inmates are reporting as homeless, there's a plan to spend $3 million to add 150 shelter beds. Parolees who say they are homeless must check in weekly with probation.

In Los Angeles County, where 758 convicts released under realignment say they have no permanent address, county attorneys are considering whether being homeless could be classified as an automatic violation of a parolee's terms of release. That's in part because many counties are finding that former inmates will claim homelessness to avoid close supervision.

Los Angeles has spent more than $6.5 million on housing for convicts who would have previously been the responsibility of state parole.

Counties say the number of lower-level offenders -- defined as those who have committed crimes that are non-serious, non-sexual and non-violent -- who are homeless upon their release has not necessarily changed since the realignment law took effect in 2011. State officials are still tallying the number.

The difference is that previously, these felons were the state's responsibility. Counties are not strangers to dealing with homeless probationers, but now the numbers have increased.

"By and large, the speed with which this whole thing was rolled out created some challenges for everybody," said Los Angeles County Probation Deputy Chief Reaver Bingham, who is forming homeless task forces in which probation officers will have 20 offenders to monitor instead of 75 to 100.

"We anticipated there would be a homeless population, but how to provide services?" he said. "We had to work feverishly to put together a program to deal with it."

In Riverside County, probation officials have struggled to set up long-term housing, in part because of resistance from local communities, Probation Chief Mark Hake said.

"There's a lot of concern ... that these offenders are running the streets and it's bad for everybody's community," said Hake, who estimates up to 10 percent of new parolees are homeless. "What everybody's missing is these people were coming out before, but they were just going to parole and nobody knew about them."

The realignment law was passed as part of the response to federal judges who ordered a drastic reduction in California's inmate population. Redirecting those convicted of lower-level offenses to county jails was intended to save space in state prisons while providing a modest savings for the state.

One of the law's goals is turning around an abysmal recidivism rate with rehabilitation programs run by local authorities, who often partner with nonprofit groups and mental health workers. Stable housing is critical to the success of those programs. The recidivism rate before realignment had reached 67 percent, one of the highest in the nation.

"The need for housing is always very high," said Sean Becker, a housing services coordinator with Abode Services in Alameda County, which has a contract to provide beds for recently released state inmates. "If people have housing, they're less likely to have mental health issues and break the law again."

That's been the case for Arthur Scott.

When Scott was released in March after serving time on his 22nd auto theft conviction, probation officials referred him to Becker's nonprofit for housing. Scott, who has never been free for more than two weeks in the past 22 years, has been living on his own for three months. He is sober, working toward a janitorial certificate and has a job parking cars at an auction lot.