As Gov. Jerry Brown shifts much of California’s prisoner responsibilities to the local level, a host of local officials are beginning to study and implement a series of innovative measures aimed at redirecting residents with drug or mental health issues away from the criminal justice system.

Last week in an email pitch to supporters for a second term, Brown said that’s exactly the kind of thinking that his “realignment” proposal was aimed at spurring.

“After more than a fivefold increase in the prison population, California has now embraced a series of major reforms that place responsibility and funding for lower level offenders with local governments. As a result, the prison population is down dramatically and significant funding is going to treatment and rehabilitation,” Brown wrote.

At a recent daylong forum organized by law students at UC Irvine, several regional and national experts and advocates signaled strong support for that kind of shift.

The panelists encouraged local officials to implement what they said are proven, cost-effective options to dramatically reduce a person’s chances of re-offending.

Judge Gretchen Rohr of D.C. Superior Court said her court’s diversion program offers short-term, community-based mental health treatment for certain would-be prisoners.

A recent study showed that the program significantly reduced recidivism, Rohr told attendees.

In felony diversion programs, recidivism can drop from about 70 percent to 25 percent, said Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California.

“The risks are so much less from doing this kind of thing,” he said.

The last few decades have seen an explosion in the number of prisoners, particularly women, added Loyola Law School professor Priscilla Ocen, with much of it due to nonviolent drug and property crimes.

Between 1980 and 2010, the number of women in state and federal prisons rose from 15,000 to 112,000, a 640 percent increase compared with a 35 percent increase in America’s overall female population.

There are two paths going forward, Ocen said: further expanding the criminal justice system or an alternate approach that centers on communities and families.

An example of that alternative, Ocen said, is re-entry programs like A New Way of Life, which focuses on helping women who were behind bars address their drug, family and mental health issues.

About 80 to 90 percent of female prisoners suffered from sexual violence before turning 18, she said. The program focuses on their trauma and helps them process it through counseling.

Of the 600 women who have gone through the program, about 70 percent successfully discharged from parole and probation, stayed sober and entered job training or the workforce, according to A New Way of Life.

That’s something the “state of California with its billions of dollars can’t accomplish,” Ocen said.

Another program highlighted at the forum is the LEAD program in King County, Wash., which allows police to refer low-level drug and prostitution offenders into community services instead of jail.

Under the program, known officially as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, police arrest someone for drugs or prostitution but then take them to a social worker, who immediately conducts crisis intervention and sets them up with services such as rent, drug treatment or tuition.

When officers were first told about it, “they looked at you like, ‘You’re crazy, right?’ ” said Lisa Daugaard, a deputy public defender in King County.

But as they started participating, Daugaard said, police started “viewing this program as the best way of changing the actual behavior in the community that they are concerned about.”

It has “fundamentally changed the relationship” between officers and the people they’re policing, she said.

The program has brought together a wide range of normally opposing forces, including the local prosecutor’s office, the Seattle Police Department, the county sheriff’s office, public defenders, the ACLU and other community members.

LEAD started in 2011 with an evaluation currently underway to analyze whether it reduces drug use and recidivism, is more cost-effective than the usual jail-focused approach and has a positive impact on quality of life.

Closer to home, Santa Barbara County prosecutors started their own diversion program in 2012.

“Along with significant cost savings due to reduced low-level misdemeanor cases, the program will also result in improved efficiencies, reductions in recidivism, and more positive outcomes for those convicted of misdemeanor crimes,” according to the district attorney’s website.

As the criminal justice debate goes on, one thing is clear: California’s prison system is under intense pressure.

Citing “needless suffering and death” of prisoners amid overcrowding and substandard medical and mental health care, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 ordered the state to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000.

And state leaders will have to find a way to reduce that number by another nearly 10,000 inmates over the next two years, due to another court order.

The state’s approach so far has been to shift many responsibilities for prisoners and parolees to counties, causing local jails to absorb the influx.

Orange County officials have already complained that the shift is piling on millions of dollars in extra costs that the county now must bear on its own.

Such budgetary pressures, as well as high rates of re-offending, have fueled calls for new approaches.

Prisoners’ mental health often becomes worse while incarcerated, said UC Santa Cruz professor Craig Haney.

“They tend to deteriorate in these places” in ways that “make them worse not better,” Haney said.

About 7 percent of inmates entered California prisons with mental illnesses while about 21 percent had mental illnesses when released, according to data cited by criminologist James Austin of the JFA Institute.

“What is happening between admission and release is a significant uptick in the number of people being diagnosed with a significant mental health problem,” Austin said.

“So from my perspective, the system is creating mental illness. People are coming in without a problem, but they leave with a problem.”

Several panelists at the UC Irvine forum pointed to solitary confinement, which isolates prisoners for days or weeks, as one of many types of experiences that harm mental health.

“There’s a growing call around the country” for major changes in solitary confinement, including complete abolition of the practice, said UCLA law professor Sharon Dolovich.

The issue is being probed by the U.S. Senate, which held hearings on solitary confinement last month.

On a more local level, a study by USC psychiatry professors Linda Weinberger and Bruce Gross found that 95 percent of inmates with severe mental illness at Los Angeles County’s Twin Towers jail had been arrested before.

“So anyone that’s thinking that this is providing any public safety benefit is kidding themselves,” said Eliasberg of the ACLU, reacting to the finding.

By intervening when people first commit low-level drug crimes and directing them into treatment programs, you can prevent them from being brutalized behind bars and committing worse crimes, he said.

“Frankly, I think the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association would be happy about it too,” said Eliasberg. “It’s exorbitantly expensive.”

He pointed to a Miami-area judge who decided to advocate a new approach after seeing the same people coming into his courthouse over and over.

The Miami program has two parts: law enforcement identifying mentally ill people when they’re arrested and giving them treatment, and post-booking diversion to community treatment.

A community-based approach has to be set up to view someone as a whole person, Eliasberg said, including treating substance abuse and mental health issues as well as possible employment and education opportunities.

Miami’s effort cut the recidivism rate from 75 percent to 20 percent, according to the Palm Beach Post.

Eliasberg said the approach is saving taxpayer dollars on imprisonment “and also healing communities and people.”

Yet in California, the model continues to be “incarcerate, incarcerate, incarcerate,” Eliasberg said.

LA County has an expanding mentally-ill jail population, he said, and to deal with the issue, the county is hiring a construction management firm, rather than criminologists or sociologists. A new $932-million jail has been proposed.

They’re going to “spend a boatload of money” on a facility while not investing in community programs that prevent people from going to jail in first place, Eliasberg said.

“It sort of boggles the mind,” he added.

Other panelists argued that former prisoners shouldn’t be thrown back in for minor parole and probation violations.

Former inmate Louis Garcia said he was reincarcerated for drinking alcohol in violation of his parole.

“That’s what needs to stop. Why do we send people to prison for that kind of behavior?” Austin reacted.

Failures in the prison health care system also create new mental health problems in inmates, panelists said.

Gloria Killian, who served 17 years on a murder conviction before it was overturned, said one of her fellow inmates had a rare kidney disease and a doctor’s note stating that if she had pain to take her to a clinic or hospital.

But as she screamed in pain for six hours straight, prison officials did nothing to help her, according to Killian.

The woman “died screaming for help in her cell,” Killian said. “They had to send her entire housing unit to the psychiatric department, it was so horrendous.”

Reform advocates face an uphill battle, pointed out Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Irvine’s law school.

“There’s been a political force on the other side to press for ever more incarceration,” including California’s powerful prison guards’ union, said Chemerinsky, who is also a Voice of OC board member.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association makes double the political contributions of the California Teachers Association but has one-tenth the membership, he added.

Plus, politicians never want to be seen as “soft on crime,” said Chemerinsky.

Still, many attendees had hope that with enough evidence of these programs’ effectiveness, public attitudes would shift.

King County’s LEAD program, for example, is bringing together traditional opponents, who now stand “shoulder to shoulder” in pushing to expand it to all of downtown Seattle, Daugaard said.

Reformers “have to make sure that it’s win-win-win” for police and the community stakeholders who usually get their way, she added.

“And so far so good.”

You can reach Nick Gerda at, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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