Realignment rehabilitation benefits low-level offenders in Stanislaus County

Andrea Conklin, 38, sits in a classroom at the day reporting center. She now works part time and studies at Modesto Junior College.
Andrea Conklin, 38, sits in a classroom at the day reporting center. She now works part time and studies at Modesto Junior College. dnoda@modbee.com

Andrea Conklin thought she would never again see her son. Billy McCasland Jr. thought he had no chance of getting a job. Larry Muir thought his drug addiction would control him his entire life.

But with the help of rehabilitation programs funded by prison realignment and offered to convicted felons, all three have reached a turning point and achieved goals that once seemed impossible.

They are among thousands of offenders whose crimes are considered nonserious, nonviolent and nonsexual under California Assembly Bill 109, designed to lower the state’s budget and respond to a U.S. Supreme Court order to reduce the state’s prison population.

With public safety realignment, Gov. Jerry Brown also hoped to close the “revolving door” of low-level offenders through state prisons.

Felony offenders who otherwise would have gone to prison are instead being sentenced to serve time in county jails and are supervised by county probation officers upon their release.

The Community Corrections Partnership, made up of local law enforcement officials, is trying to avoid having the same revolving door come to Stanislaus County jails. The partnership has invested a portion of the state’s money for realignment in rehabilitation programs.

July 1 will mark the fourth phase of public safety realignment. Offenders are serving less and less time in jail because of overcrowding, and instead are being diverted to work release programs or put on GPS monitoring.

Until a jail expansion project is complete sometime in 2016, rehabilitation is the county’s best option for preventing criminals from reoffending.

Reached her destination

Andrea Conklin, 38, had been to half a dozen drug treatment programs mandated by the court, but it wasn’t until she was given the opportunity to participate in Destination Recovery at the Stanislaus County Probation Department’s day reporting center that she got clean.

Conklin started using drugs when she was 19. For seven years, she was in and out of jail due to her addiction to crack cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin. Time and again, Conklin was offered drug treatment in exchange for an early release from jail or a suspended prison sentence, but she eventually ran out of second chances.

Conklin was sent to prison in Chowchilla and served seven months of an 18-month sentence. She was released to the custody of the Stanislaus County Probation Department under AB 109 and told her probation officer she was ready for help.

“Once I came here, it seemed like it clicked,” she said. “I don’t know if it was because I was away from the people I was using with or because I was just ready to get clean, but it seemed like what I was learning helped me. My eyes were opened once I started going to Destination Recovery.”

Conklin completed the intensive outpatient care, then asked for and was granted an additional six months of treatment.

She now works part time, studies psychosocial rehabilitation at Modesto Junior College and volunteers at Nirvana Drug and Alcohol Treatment Institute.

In the midst of her addiction, Conklin granted custody of her 18-month-old son to his father.

“When I first got clean, I didn’t think I would ever see him again,” Conklin said. “People kept telling me, ‘Andrea, it’s going to work out, you just keep doing the next right thing and good things are going to happen.’ ”

Conklin’s series of good decisions got her back to her son, now 8. She started with visitation, participating in his school activities and attending his baseball games, and recently was granted joint custody.

“That is the biggest miracle that could have come of this,” she said.

Mental health services

The outpatient program Conklin attended was offered by Stanislaus County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services, which started working with county law enforcement under realignment in 2012.

The Community Corrections Partnership also recently added services through nonprofit and faith-based organizations. Probation officers no longer just supervise criminals but also connect them with programs and services and teach some of the classes intended to help them succeed when they are on their own.

Ideally, a reformed criminal would get a job and become a productive, taxpaying member of society. Realistically, the priority for the vast majority of inmates being released from jail is to keep them off drugs, off the streets and on psychiatric medication, said Chief Probation Officer Jill Silva. About 15 percent of the population served by the Probation Department is transient and 17 percent have a serious mental illness, she said. Many are released from jail or prison and disappear until they are arrested again, never having reported to a probation officer.

The department started a pilot program this year with the Modesto Gospel Mission, requiring homeless offenders to check in with their probation officers at the mission and at the same time getting them connected with the services offered by the mission.

Behavioral Health and Recovery Services was allotted $2 million of the $19 million the county got this year in realignment funding. Before realignment, the agency could provide services to about 50 offenders each year, usually the most at-risk population – those recently released from state hospitals, said BHRS Forensic Manager Mike Wilson. Now, about 200 AB109 offenders are getting services. Three clinicians were added to the jail to assess inmates’ mental health needs before they are released.

Family support specialists, assigned to the jails and the Probation Department, help people sign up for Medi-Cal to continue receiving mental health services and medication after jail and beyond the terms of their supervision.

BHRS also offers outpatient drug treatment programs, such as the one Conklin graduated from, through its day reporting center. The center, located at the Probation Department on 11th Street, is a centralized location where offenders check in with probation officers, submit to drug and alcohol tests and receive rehabilitation services in areas ranging from anger management to GED preparation courses.

The day reporting center opened eight months before realignment went into effect. It was intended for felony probationers, but realigned offenders now constitute 72 percent of the clients. Some 180 people utilize the day reporting center each month. That number is expected to triple when a new day reporting center opens near the Public Safety Center on Hackett Road, tentatively in 2015.

In addition to the day reporting center, the Community Corrections Partnership this year began working with El Concilio and Nirvana Drug and Alcohol Treatment Institute.

El Concilio is a community-based organization with a re-entry program that assists offenders with referrals to faith-based support groups, drug and alcohol rehab, food banks and housing programs. The nonprofit, which is receiving $150,000 for its services, also offers job-readiness courses.

Nirvana is receiving $45,000 to provide 30 residential beds a year for AB 109 offenders.

Learning life skills

Larry Muir was one of the first people to get a bed at Nirvana when he was released from prison on drug charges in August 2012. “I went to a party when I was 20 and I came home when I was 45,” Muir summed up his 25-year drug addiction, which he supported by dealing.

He served five prison terms since 1987 and, like Conklin, never took the mandated drug treatment seriously.

But during his last term in prison, something changed in Muir. “I was just sitting there and I felt empty,” he said. “I couldn’t do it no more, that was it for me.”

Muir graduated from Nirvana and now works full time in construction and is a house manager for one of Nirvana’s homes.

It wasn’t just getting clean that helped Muir turn his life around. “If you take the drugs and alcohol out of a person, they still have character defects – the mentality, the thinking, the way they act. If they don’t work on those, it’s going to be tough,” he said.

Muir was enrolled in life-skills courses at the day reporting center that he said taught him to be less judgmental and accept everyone’s opinion as valid, regardless of whether he agrees with it.

Some of the courses at the center teach the most basic skills, concepts and behaviors that are part of most people’s moral character.

A principles and values class teaches people how to exercise restraint, the benefits of ambition and hard work and why it’s important to be honest.

Moral Reconation Therapy is designed to alter judgment, making decisions not just on pleasure and pain but considering social rules and the effects on other people.

A property crime workshop helps offenders identify triggers for committing those crimes but also attempts to teach empathy and respect for the victims. Silva said a victims rights advocate recently was added to the Probation Department to talk with convicted thieves about the need to pay restitution.

To get offenders to a point where they are making an honest living, there is a GED preparation course and work maturity courses.

In the work maturity course, instructors teach felons basic work ethic (show up on time and don’t overextend breaks), how to fill out an application (have it proofread and be honest) and how to interview (dress appropriately and shake the interviewer’s hand).

Classes supply motivation

Billy McCasland Jr., 31, said he’s worked in auto body shops most of his adult life, so he knew how to apply and interview for a job.

But heavily tattooed and fresh out of prison on a theft conviction, McCasland gave up on the job search before he even started. He assumed checking the felony conviction box on the application would amount to an automatic disqualification.

“Going to that class gave me the motivation to keep going,” he said. His instructor gave his some good advice.

“The way I was figuring, people were going to stereotype me, but he said, ‘Don’t stereotype them and think they won’t want you on their team.’ ”

McCasland applied for more than 20 jobs during the 15-week course. No one ever called him back. But three weeks after completing the course, he got an interview.

He was honest about his criminal record but highlighted his positive qualities, which he learned at the day reporting center, and landed the job.

He retained that part-time job building custom cars and has a full-time position at a company that paints big rigs.

It’s difficult to know at this point if McCasland, Conklin and Muir are the exceptions or are becoming the rule.

Serious crimes in Modesto spiked in the months after the inception of prison realignment, but leveled out last year. Although some were quick to blame realignment for the spike in crime, probation’s adult division director, Steve Jackson, said crime statistics are not a good method of measuring successes and failures. The recidivism rate is more telling.

Probation has joined with Modesto police to hire a crime analyst to examine the recidivism rate and determine what programs and services are most effective.

Determining how realignment funds are spent requires ongoing reassessment of the criminal population and their needs.

After assessing the outcomes of the programs offered this year, the Community Corrections Partnership voted to continue its agreements with El Concilio and Nirvana but ended a two-year partnership with Second Chances California, a vocation program with an equine assisted psychotherapy component.

One thing McCasland, Muir and Conklin had in common was their willingness to change. They all wanted the programs to work for them.

But Jackson said all of the realigned offenders will get the same opportunities.

“I don’t think it’s up to us to decide who’s going to grasp hold and who isn’t,” he said. “We are not going to deny someone our services based on our preconception that they aren’t going to do it anyway.”

Mark Ferriera, supervising probation officer for the day reporting center, said people he’s written off have shocked him.

He recently attended the graduation from drug treatment of a woman with 10 prior felony convictions and seven children in Child Protective Services, a woman he’s caught hiding during probation searches because she was wanted.

She’s been sober nine months.

“I never thought she’d make it. I thought, ‘This is one who’s probably never going to get it,’ and I went to her graduation a couple weeks ago. It was pretty amazing,” Ferriera said. “I have been working here almost 15 years, and one thing I have found is that for a lot of these guys, they need to be told over and over and over again. Sometimes it takes multiple times sometimes it never clicks. For others, it clicks on the very first time.”

Muir said he needed those extra chances and for someone to believe in him.

“AB 109 gave me the opportunity to get myself into a program and take it and run with it and not look back,” he said. “It’s like pushing a kid ... on the bike and they are pedaling and you are holding onto the back and then you let go and they don’t know it. AB 109 got me that ... that was my little boost. With AB 109, I’m getting on the bike and they just pushed me.”