A touch of hope for the straight and narrow

Sandy Banks

September 18, 2007

The residents of the South Los Angeles halfway house didn’t know much about the governor’s new plan to ease prison overcrowding by shortening the time many ex-convicts spend on parole.

Some, like Byron Conway, wouldn’t be eligible anyway. At 34, he’s spent much of his life behind bars. A potential third-striker, if he so much as throws a punch at somebody, he could go back to prison for life.

But he’s convinced that officials are on to something with their plan to motivate ex-convicts to stay clean by offering to free them from parole if they can steer clear of trouble for six months.

If a guy’s going to fall off, he’ll do it right away, said Conway, a former gang-banger from Victorville just off a four-year prison term for carrying a deadly weapon and violating parole.

“You get out with no home, no job, nowhere to go. . . . You’ve got to get your money somehow. . . .”

California prison studies bear him out. We have one of the highest recidivism rates in the country — more than two-thirds of inmates return to prison, most during their first six months out.

We’re also one of only two states to require every inmate leaving prison to check in with parole officers for up to three years. That means that any parole violation during that time, however minor — missing an appointment with a parole agent, failing a drug test or getting in a fight — can land a parolee back in jail. That’s one reason our prisons are so crowded.

It’s also why parole agents are overloaded, supervising drug addicts and check kiters when they should be spending their time keeping rapists and ki*lers in line.

The proposed change — expected to be approved by the parole board today — would allow some inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes to earn their way off parole in six months if they manage to find a job, keep a stable living situation and stick with their prescribed counseling or treatment program.

“We’ve got to do something different,” said Joan Petersilia, a UC Irvine criminology professor who advises the governor on parole matters. “By rewarding participation in work, education and treatment programs, maybe we can motivate parolees to complete rehabilitation.”

But that’s not as easy as it sounds.

You try finding a place to live, getting a bus pblank and buying an outfit to wear on a job interview with the $200 in gate money that inmates get when they’re sent back to the streets.

Josie Barthel is the kind of ex-inmate for whom the new rules are designed. The mother of three spent 16 months in prison for theft. When she was paroled to El Monte three years ago, she spent six months in a drug treatment center, then found a job, bought a car and rented an apartment.

But life is still a struggle. She was recently fired from her grocery store job — after moving up from bagger to a management position — for not telling her bosses she had a prison record.

“I feel like crying just talking about it,” she said Monday as she took a break from looking through want ads. “I was afraid to tell them because they wouldn’t hire me. This taught me a hard lesson.”

Her salvation was Hilary Reed, a Pepperdine University law professor blankigned to mentor her through a voluntary program that pairs parolees with lawyers.

“Josie has amazing drive, but it was difficult even for her,” said Reed, who let Barthel move into her Pasadena home when her housing plans fell apart.

“It’s easy to get discouraged on parole,” Reed said. “You can have all the best intentions, but what you really need is resources — transportation, housing, a job. Instead, you’re out there with no backstop.”

Petersilia concedes that there are huge gaps in the state’s plan, but more funding is now being directed to community groups to create programs to blankist people like Barthel and Conway, who’ll spend the next few months living at the halfway house run by Human Potential Consultants.

Conway thinks he’ll be able to stay out of trouble this time because counselors are teaching him to manage his anger, make good choices and are helping him find a job.

“I was angry at the world when I had to come here,” he said of the halfway house, a warehouse-like building that has room for 125 residents, but funding for only 40 right now. “Now this feels like home, for me it’s a safe environment.”

Petersilia acknowledges that “we’ve left people on their own to do too much. We’ve got to link them with churches, job training programs . . . bring in their families to help.”

The parole plan is one small step to unhook them from the anchor of incarceration, but it will affect only a fraction of parolees looking for a second chance.

About 40% of California’s 125,000 parolees — those with no gang ties, long records or violent crimes — might be eligible for the program, which will be tried out first with small groups in Orange and San Bernardino counties.

“We have no idea how many will stick it out,” Petersilia said. “It’s not easy, what we’re asking. To meet these requirements, they’re gonna have to walk on water.”

That might be a comfort to the tough-on-crime crowd. The plan has so far avoided the public opposition that’s doomed other plans to loosen parole rules. But it’s also a sign of how far we have to come if we really want to give ex-convicts a chance to go straight.

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