Council addresses challenges, benefits of effective reentry services for the county

SAN FRANCISCO – In the wake of the recent special session of the California legislature to consider new bills to reduce a prison population on the verge of crisis, San Francisco civic leaders are holding a summit to educate community and government stakeholders and the public about the challenges facing ex-offenders returning to society after incarceration. Today, the San Francisco Safe Communities Reentry Council will hold its first Reentry Summit at the Milton Marks Conference Center in the State Building, hosting more than 25 panelists who will discuss the needs of the formerly incarcerated, and proven methods to respond to currently inadequate reentry planning.

The San Francisco Safe Communities Reentry Council is a collaborative association under the joint leadership of San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi and San Francisco District Five Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi. SCRC members include representatives from the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, the San Francisco Public Defender, the California Parole Board, Assemblyman Mark Leno’s office, and San Francisco community and faith-based organizations. The goal of the SCRC is to implement policies and programs that reduce recidivism and facilitate successful reentry into society for probationers and parolees returning to San Francisco communities.

The Reentry Council was established just over a year ago, in the hope that a cooperative, local approach would reduce reoffending by parolees and probationers. Says Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, “Unless we address the connection between recidivism and escalating crime, San Francisco will remain adrift in its attempts to make its communities safer. The Council is working to innovate programs and embrace proven strategies that can shepherd parolees and probationers towards successful reentry.”

The Reentry Council cooperates with District Attorney Kamala Harris and Sheriff Michael Hennessy to coordinate programming and administer budget allocations for reentry services. The Council also benefits from the broad and varied experience of local research institutions like the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) and the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ), service providers such as Walden House and employers such as San Francisco Goodwill and Delancey Street. Cooperation and input from parolees and probationers and as well parole and probation administrators also has been a key factor in the council’s development.

The broad scope of experience on the Reentry Council is indicative of the various services and opportunities that the Council believes should be available to assist returning ex-offenders to their communities.

“The Re-entry Council represents a bridge between criminal justice agencies and community grassroots organizations that have been doing re-entry work in the community. The knowledge base of our members is enormous,” says Public Defender Jeff Adachi.

When a prisoner completes his or her prison term, the community that suffered the crime is usually the same to which the former prisoner will return. To make this transition more successful, for both the community and the ex-offender, says Bayview Senior Ex-Offender Program Director Frank Williams, “there must be a shift in the goals of California penal system, from punishment to rehabilitation, ensuring the safety of the community while providing wraparound services for the individual from community-based and faith-based organizations, law enforcement, and government social services.”

California prisons are facing the worst overcrowding crisis in history. Prisoners are double-and triple-bunked and rehabilitative programs are virtually inaccessible due to the sheer number of inmates. More than 90% of those who enter prison eventually will return to their communities, with or without preparation for the transition. In California alone, approximately 131,000 individuals will complete prison terms this year and return to society on parole.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, over 2,200 individuals are on parole in San Francisco. Twenty percent of those returning will enter treatment centers as a requirement of their release. The remaining 80 percent will receive limited support as they transition to free living.

In 2006, approximately 9 percent of California’s budget, or $8.56 billion, will be spent on California corrections. The State Legislature earmarked $53 million of these funds for recidivism reduction programs, including reentry planning at the local level.

Reentry Council members are from various local entities that work with formerly incarcerated individuals. By uniting their efforts, they anticipate that they will facilitate smoother transitions from prison to home, thereby reducing the chances that parolees and probationers will commit new crimes or violate the terms of their parole or probation.

Jason Bell, Director of Project Rebound at San Francisco State University, is a member of the Council, and a panelist at the Summit. He works with people in or leaving the criminal justice system who are seeking to complete higher education. Project Rebound supports parolees and probationers to complete college degrees or graduate degrees in fulfillment of its mission, “education as an alternative to incarceration.”

Commenting on his commitment to assisting people to reenter from prison or jail, Bell says, " California has an immense prison system and people are being released on a daily basis. Many parolees really want to make a positive change in their lives. We need to put into place some positive possibilities for people who want to make that change in their lives. Project Rebound and the Council are working to do that."

The lack of adequate reentry planning in California is partly responsible for the 70 percent re-offending rate among California parolees. The high statistic not only impacts an overburdened criminal justice system, it also presents a public safety concern to be addressed by communities that see these parolees return.

State lawmaker’s have been engaged as the SCRC has moved to develop and implement a reentry plan under State Senator Jackie Speier’s SB618 guidelines. It is foreseeable that the state will begin to fund local efforts like San Francisco’s Reentry Council in an attempt to reduce recidivism and lower the prison population. In addition to bringing various stakeholders together to address reentry planning and service provision, additional local efforts like a Second Chance Court are under consideration. Such a court would deal with technical parole violators, those who miss appointments or fail a drug test, by assigning them a caseworker who would assist the individual to access vocational training, life-skills, appropriate housing, education, healthcare, drug counseling or other services.

The SCRC Summit, “Making Rehabilitation Work: Creating Opportunities for Formerly Incarcerated Individuals,” will review the need for reentry planning, discuss challenges and successes of programs in the region, and consider new solutions for transitioning adults. The Reentry Council welcomes State Assemblyman Mark Leno as the keynote speaker at the Reentry Summit.

“The Summit represents a working partnership between local and state government agencies, along with community-based organizations, to improve and enhance delivery and availability of critical services to formerly incarcerated persons, through an evidence-based approach,” says Public Defender Jeff Adachi. “We hope that others join us in this important effort to create positive opportunities and outcomes for former prisoners.”

Supervisor Mirkarimi continues, “The September 27th Summit will confront the causes and effects of recidivism and explore strategies for reentry in pursuit of effective rehabilitation and community empowerment."

The event is free to the public, but seating is limited. Panels are scheduled throughout the day from 9am to 5:30pm. The entire Summit will be broadcast on San Francisco Government Television. For more information about the event, please visit www.sfgov.org/pd.