Discussion: Prop. 6’s Reentry Fund

Sen. George Runner often relies upon Prop. 6’s funding of supervision and services for parolees as evidence that his initiative is a “balanced approach” to crime prevention. The funding makes for a good soundbite, but little more than that. A ballot measure that creates 30 new or increased criminal penalties should have to do plenty more to stymie the effects of incarceration on our communities.

First, some perspective: there are nearly 127,000 people currently on parole in the state of California, according to the CDCR annual report. Prop. 6’s $20 million in contracts for workforce preparation and supervision of parolees is equivalent to $157 per parolee, per year. A line item in a 30-page ballot initiative isn’t going to close California’s revolving door, which has seen a majority of inmates return to the CDCR within three years of release. An actual solution requires comprehensive reform of the current parole system (see this discussion of parole realignment for one example of a more rigorous response).

Now, the program itself: the Parolee Reentry Fund awards $20 million annually in government contracts for “parolee mentoring and workforce preparation programs.” The $20 million amounts to 6 percent of Prop. 6’s spending on new programs, or 2 percent of the total program spending. The initiative spends twice as much on new criminal justice bureaucracy as it does on reentry services (see my earlier post for a full analysis of where Prop. 6 spends its money).

Prop. 6 is quick to use catchphrases of the reentry movement, rightly stressing the importance of long-term connections to the workforce and access to services for people returning home from prison. But it provides only the vaguest glimpse of how the money will actually be spent. CDCR, those experts on prisoner rehabilitation, will administer the fund (which increases annually according to a cost of living adjustment) and award contracts to programs with “demonstrated evidence of an effective program model,” as well as “extensive experience” working with government. That’s about the extent of Prop. 6’s guidance to the CDCR. Prop. 6 doesn’t set a bar for “demonstrated evidence” of a successful model, nor does it specify which of the 127,000 people on parole the funds should target. If “demonstrated evidence” means reduced rates of recidivism among participants, then program administrators could very easily “cream” the easiest cases to boost their chances for success, since there appears to be no larger objective to the reentry fund that this kind of behavior would contradict (see the Boston Reentry Initiative for an example of a reentry policy with a specific objective, to reduce the rate of violent recidivism in particular areas of Boston).

Bottom line, while not all of Prop. 6 is evil, even the potentially well-meaning provisions are poorly designed. The reentry fund can’t possibly address the needs of all 127,000 people on parole, so who is it going to target? The offenders with the highest-risk of recidivism, the greatest needs, or simply anyone who wants to sign up? How will risks and needs be assessed? Will programs attempt to target young people (those least likely to respond positively to reentry programs)? Will participation in recipient programs be mandatory or voluntary? Will funds be distributed more or less evenly throughout the state, or will they be focused where the impact of parolees returning home is felt most severely? Must programs report all technical violations to the parole board, as the measure’s language calling for “aggressive supervision” of parolees would imply? It would even be nice to hear Runner give an example of one program already operating in California that he thinks should qualify for the funds.

Many of these are questions that can be taken up by the legislature, Senator Runner would probably say. But if Runner trusts the legislature to figure out the best way to implement Prop. 6, then why won’t he trust them to vote on it?

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