The auditorium at the UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Center was filled with more than 150 attendees when Riverside County Supervisor V. Manuel Perez spoke at the Adult Justice System Symposium on Oct. 30.
Perez talked about the innovative programs and services now utilized by the Riverside County Probation Department to help citizens re-integrate into their communities after being released from prison—and he spoke passionately about why the issue is important to him.
He elaborated on those reasons in a subsequent phone interview.
“I’m very proud of the fact that I grew up in Coachella, and that I grew up (the child of) immigrant farm workers who did everything that they could to support their children,” Perez said. “But the 1980s and ’90s in the city of Coachella were tough. It was crazy. La Eme (the Mexican mafia in the United States) and the local gangs ran the city and ran the community. So many people were pressured to become a member of La Eme, or of a gang, and if you did not, then unfortunately, maybe something would happen to you.
“I was just very lucky. I was just very, very lucky. So that’s why (this issue) is deep for me. It’s not only about folks who were very close to me, but also even family members. I’ve got family members to this day who are in prison.”
Perez organized the event in conjunction with the Riverside County Probation Department to familiarize residents and organizations with community-based programs geared toward rehabilitation, with the intention of preventing the need to re-incarcerate those convicted of crimes.
Riverside County Interim Chief Probation Officer Ron Miller II spoke about his desire to engage the community in a recent phone interview.
“You know it’s interesting: Historically, probation has not been a ‘sexy’ department to cover,” Miller said. “For many years, we primarily did pre-sentencing reports on people who had been convicted and were awaiting sentencing. The pre-sentence report would give some background information to the court to (help them) determine an appropriate sentence. … As money in the adult world (of probation services) continued to dry up, the responsiveness to adults on probation was fairly limited.”
Then, in 2009, Senate Bill 678 became law.
“SB 678 had to do with giving funds for evidence-based practices to be developed,” Miller said. “That infusion of money into the system really allowed probation to start going from a slow-walk to a run: It allowed us to get into case-plan development, and really look at the treatment needs of adult clients and the factors that led them to a place where they were arrested. Then, we could come up with strategies to address those treatment needs.
“For us, the two words you hear a lot of are ‘previous trauma’ or ‘drama’ (that may explain) what’s gone on in this person’s life, and next: How do we get this person back to being happy, healthy, whole and functioning in our communities?”
Two years later, the state passed Assembly Bill 109, which started a process known as “realignment”: People convicted of less-serious felonies were diverted from the state prison system and instead sent to county jails.
“For all the negativity that came out of (the passage of that bill),” Miller said, “it really did push additional money into our portion of the criminal-justice system that allowed us to become more effective in reaching the adult population and creating change opportunities for them. You’ll hear a lot from law enforcement about the challenges that AB 109 has presented. But from our perspective, these were people who were coming out of prison anyway, and instead of going to parole for supervision, they now went to probation for supervision—and (at the county level), this is our community. We know the resources that are available, so we’re probably the best-situated agency to provide the level of support toward community integration.
“A guy’s coming out of prison after having served, say, five years: That’s five years out of the loop. They don’t have a bank account. They don’t have a place to stay. They don’t have a job. They get $200 exit money, and then you’re popping them back into the community. Where’s the support for success? We’re probably the best agency to try to bridge this person, from where he was (in jail or prison) to getting him back on his feet and functioning back in the community.”
Have these efforts decreased the recidivism rate? Miller said he believes they have.
“Of the main categories we look at in the field of probation, one of those is the formal probation client. That’s somebody who has been arrested, gone to court and has been sentenced to probation locally,” he said. “We have about 9,000 of those clients currently in Riverside County. Among that group, about 26 percent will recidivate (within three years), which means that about 74 percent successfully complete without a new violation. That’s the number that we focus on, the successful completions.
“Then we have the AB 109 population of about 3,000 clients, and they come in two groups. One is the group that is arrested, goes to court and is sentenced to (state) prison, but then they serve their sentence locally at a county jail. … Then we also have the group that is sentenced to prison; they go to prison; and then when they’re released, because they were there for a non-violent, non-sexual, non-serious offense, they come to probation for supervision. On average, about 43 percent of those clients recidivate.”
That apparent decrease in the recidivism rate was part of the story Perez wanted to tell at the symposium.
“Quite frankly, I was impressed by the amount of people (who attended), but regardless, that’s not the point,” Perez said. “Did they gain something from it? Are there changes that should be made to our system? And do they feel they have a voice in the system? This (symposium) is our first attempt, and this is my passion.
“In the ’80s and ’90s, the compassion did not exist in our communities, especially in communities of color. Community policing was not (born) of compassion. I think now it is changing. I think what probation is doing is creating change. Now, it’s not just about looking for people and then locking them up and throwing away the key, just because they wear certain clothing or they look a certain way. I believe that compassion is now coming, or is here.
“Also, today, we have leaders who are coming back home. They grew up in areas of the Coachella Valley that are much more forward-thinking and open-minded. Then they went off to school, and now they’re returning. It doesn’t matter what their ethnicity may be. They are very willing to work with people now. It wasn’t like that before. So we have to be empathetic and compassionate. In my opinion, that’s something that we need to strive for every day. It’s hard, but we should do that.”