Each time Michelle French walks in or out of her Oakland apartment, she sees the words "i will" on the wall right by the front door. The words are there to remind her to do right, to make good decisions. It is a message she needs to hear frequently.
At 34, French has packed more mistakes into her three-plus decades than most people make in a lifetime. Since she was eighteen, she has cycled in and out of prison so many times that her five-year-old son Jamari has anxiety attacks whenever he sees police officers because he's afraid they are going to take his mother away again. He has a right to worry. French has been hauled away in handcuffs again and again, arrested more than fifty times. Her rap sheet includes drug trafficking, burglary, weapons possession, and numerous parole violations.
Oakland is filled with people like Michelle French: people who've made terrible decisions for most of their lives. The city is home to approximately three thousand parolees -- felons who've been released from state prison after serving out their sentences. Most have on average a sixth-grade education and are largely illiterate, possessing few or no job skills. Many leave prison as drug addicts. Most, like French, have tasted freedom at least once before, only to let it slip away. A whopping 80 percent of the parolees furloughed to Oakland wind up back behind bars. No surprise that Oakland boasts the highest violent crime rate among the nine largest cities in California.
But despite the overwhelming odds against her, Michelle French is feeling optimistic these days. She has graduated from a substance-abuse recovery program and has been given an apartment in a city-run housing project. She also has enrolled in college and is working toward becoming a certified drug-abuse counselor. Her internship with a substance-abuse recovery program is even about to turn into a paying job. In short, she has been so successful since her latest release from the California Institution for Women that she recently was taken off parole. At more than two years on the outside without a parole violation, it is the longest stretch she's stayed out of custody since she was eighteen years old.
French is lucky to have been paroled to Oakland, a city that is pioneering some of the most innovative and successful approaches to parolee reentry in the state. Oakland's parole paradigm is an old-school, big-government mission to address felons' underlying needs by offering educational opportunities, vocational training, substance-abuse programs, job-hunting assistance, and housing. Parolees not only get help they wouldn't find in most other California cities, they also receive stepped-up supervision and scrutiny by parole agents and police officers. It's a carrot-and-stick model with a little religion tossed into the mix. Under a Bush administration initiative, several East Bay churches receive funds for faith-based parolee programs that reach out, train, and support released convicts. The idea is that churches can help sustain parolee progress without government funding once the intensive social-service funding ends.
For at least twenty years, the prevailing American model for prisoner reentry was that nothing works. But according to Jeremy Travis, one of the country's preeminent experts in parole reform, social-science research and enterprising cities such as Oakland have shown that some things do work to help parolees turn their lives around, although even the best programs have limited success.
"There's no silver bullet, no magic solution, but you can change the odds," said Travis, a senior fellow at the Washington, DC-based Urban Institute. "And the beneficiaries are the public."
After all, state and local governments have a financial interest in breaking the depressing cycle of recidivism. It costs California $33,000 a year to house an inmate in state prison, and $40,000 for a juvenile offender. Oakland's outreach programs, on the other hand, cost an average of $8,000-$9,000 a year and generally end within a year or two after an inmate is released from prison.
Oakland's model is an intriguing mix of traditional Democratic ideals and conservative Republican objectives. And, by all accounts, it is working. Oakland's parolee reentry programs are now being copied across California. State correctional officials are following the city's lead in figuring out how to best prepare inmates for life on the outside.
"In Oakland, we've seen a drop in our return to custody by 6 percent," said Shirley Poe, a former East Bay parole administrator who was recently given the job of implementing parole reforms for the state Department of Corrections. "We're telling people if you want to change your life we can help you, but you need to make that decision."
Oakland, like many other California cities, has a profound interest in encouraging parolees to turn their lives around. According to Mayor Jerry Brown, who has been instrumental in developing the program, 50 percent of the city's crimes are committed by parolees. "We had to reduce crime by having police on the streets and by getting people in an environment where they're improving themselves," Brown said in an interview. "A lot of these people have no other job skill than criminal activity. That's what they they're trained for and are good at." But he admitted that it's a daunting task, given the enormous obstacles parolees need to surmount. "You have to break many cycles," he noted. "A lot of them want to be trained and some don't."
Brown occupies a fascinating place in the parole reintegration debate. As mayor of Oakland, he is trying to undo some of the damage he did to California's penal system as the state's governor. Almost thirty years ago, Brown signed a measure that abolished indeterminate sentencing, in which inmates were given broad prison terms. Under the old system, which had been in place for sixty years, prisoners were released when they could convince a parole board they were rehabilitated. But when Brown passed the Uniform Determinate Sentencing Act in 1976, fluid prison terms ended. Instead, the law required offenders to be sentenced to fixed terms for most crimes as a way of creating a uniform system of punishment. The law, which passed amid widespread discontent with California's criminal justice system, also profoundly changed the role of the state's prisons from rehabilitation to punishment. Most of the education and vocational training programs offered to inmates were scrapped.
Today, as unrehabilitated inmates flood the streets of Oakland, Brown sees the consequences of his reforms up close and acknowledges that the 1976 law was a mistake. He now believes the state's prisons are "postgraduate schools of crime," and that California's penal system is a profound failure largely because little to no rehabilitation takes place inside. "It's a treadmill; it's a merry-go-round; it's a scandal," Brown told the Little Hoover Commission last year as it looked into California's parole system.
Because research shows that returning convicts are most likely to reoffend in the first days, weeks, or months after they are released, Oakland requires returning convicts to attend a meeting within seven days of their release, at which they are told about social-service providers that can help them make the transition home. If a parolee fails to show up within his first week out, agents round him up and physically take him to the following week's gathering.
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