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Getting Out and Staying Out

news_prison_barsSanta Cruz County puts federal grant toward reducing recidivism
Every month, 1,100 adult offenders are released from local jails and back into the Santa Cruz County community. These individuals will return to jail an average of six times throughout their adult lives.

With this in mind, a collective of Santa Cruz County agencies, nonprofits and community groups jumped at the chance to fight for the highly competitive Federal Second Chance Act Mentoring Grant when it became available through the U.S. Department of Justice last year. Their enthusiastic effort paid off—in November, Santa Cruz County was awarded the $750,000 grant for its proposal for a project called Reduction Through Research-Based Rehabilitation and Reentry, or R5. On Tuesday, Feb. 8, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors officially approved the use of the grant funds for the R5 program.     

R5 Program Manager Andrew Davis believes there are several reasons Santa Cruz’s proposal was selected. “One, there’s a level of collaboration here in Santa Cruz County that is really unusual and very powerful. Funders appreciate seeing that,” says Davis, noting that R5 brings the county’s Probation Department, Sheriff’s Office and Alcohol and Drug Services Program together with five community-run entities: the Volunteer Center, Community Action Board, Barrios Unidos, Cabrillo College and the Conflict Resolution Center.

He goes on to say that Santa Cruz County’s national reputation for successful juvenile detention reform efforts also gave them a leg up in the grant competition. But perhaps the most favorable quality of the R5 proposal, says Davis, is “the clear commitment to utilize evidence-based programs, rather than [do] business as usual, which clearly isn’t working.”

The program will make use of years of research on “what does and doesn’t work” in terms of preventing recidivism, or repeat incarceration, and will develop tools for identifying and helping men and women who are “high-risk,” or likely to return to jail or prison.

“Providing a lot of resources for those who are low risk can be counter productive,” says Davis. “With the high-risk [offenders], based on the type of their offense, their histories, and from interviewing them, we know for sure they’re coming back. And any difference we make with that population will have a big pay off for the community.”

R5 will target 18- to 25-year-olds with histories of violence and higher-than-average recidivism (meaning they’ve been to jail more than three times in the past year), providing them with increased probation supervision, evidence-based intervention and easy access to the services and resources provided by the program’s many partners.

“It has the potential to increase the involvement of other community agencies and institutions,” says Davis. For example, Friends Outside, a program run by the Santa Cruz Volunteer Center and one the five community partners involved in the collaboration, will receive funding to shore up its efforts to help incarcerated men and women successfully adjust to life on the outside.

Davis expects the effects of the R5 program to be severalfold. By helping young repeat offenders break from the cycle of crime and incarceration, he says there will be less crime, increased public safety, and a noticeable fiscal benefit. In addition to the costs of crime (those absorbed by victims, insurance costs, the county’s overhead for policing and law enforcement), Davis points to the steep cost of incarceration: $77 per day, per prisoner, according to the Santa Cruz County Probation Department. The average jail stint in the county is 26 days, checking out at about $2,000. “If we can break this cycle within that population, the impact will be enormous,” says Davis.

Last week’s approval of the R5 funding came at time of great uncertainty within the county as a result of Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed state budget, which includes a plan for realigning many services—including responsibility for some low-level offenders and parole and probation operations—from the state to local level. While this could increase the county’s workload, Davis says it may also provide some golden opportunities. The county’s Chief Probation Officer, Scott MacDonald, agrees.

"The state is looking for ways to improve its highly ineffective and costly prison and parole system,” says MacDonald. “Evidence-based programs that improve public safety by breaking the cycle of crime, reducing victimization in the community, and helping offenders become productive citizens is the best investment of our limited resources. R5 provides us with a blueprint to achieve this in our community at this critical time of realignment.”

Davis believes the R5 effort could set the bar for counties nationwide. “Virtually all of the people in the jail are coming back into our community,” he says. “The question is what will happen when they come back?”

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