prison.jpgFrom the corner of McAllister and Pierce streets in San Francisco, one can still see the devastation wreaked by a five-alarm fire in the city’s Western Addition in December.

At a Baptist church on the corner, faith-based leaders from the community met with Bay Area probation officers and Secretary of the California Department of Corrections Matthew Cate today to discuss a different kind of devastation in the neighborhood: incarceration.

London Breed, the executive director of the neighborhood’s African American Art and Culture Complex, said that the community has seen “the death and destruction” as a result of the loss of men from the community who are locked up.

The San Francisco Branch of the NAACP, along with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and Third Baptist Church, co-sponsored today’s public forum, which addressed the best way to ensure parolee’s successful reentry and reintegration into their communities.

“Oftentimes, the door is shut in their face. They’re honest about their past, they’ve paid their dues and now they want to come back to the community that they’ve spent their entire lives in and make a difference. They want to work and have a job,” Breed said.

“When the doors are shut in their faces, they go out and do what they know how to do in order to get money,” she said. “Unfortunately, that is commit a crime.”

Addressing a full house of about 500 attendees during opening remarks, Third Baptist Church Pastor Amos Brown said, “We want to say to those who are locked up that they can come back home, but we need to welcome them.”

The morning’s discussions touched on the role that realignment plays in how counties and communities can prepare and welcome those returning home after incarceration.

California’s realignment legislation, which shifts prisoners from state prisons to county level jails and programs, took effect Oct. 1.

Under the legislation, designed to address overcrowding in state prisons, state inmates convicted of nonviolent, non-serious offenses as well as adult parolees and juvenile offenders will return to local jurisdictions.

According to Cate, too much time and money but too little attention had been spent by the state on low-level offenders and parole violators.

Last year, 47,000 Californians served 90 days or less in the state’s penal system, which was enough time to pass through a reception center and have diagnostic work done.

This left no time, Cate said, to address job training, drug or alcohol programs and the like.

“That person goes right back on the street just as unprepared for success as they were when they entered,” he said.

Cate moderated a panel discussion by CDCR’s director of adult programs Elizabeth Siggins and the chief probation officers for San Francisco and Alameda counties–Wendy Still and David Muhammad.

“The whole system is vastly different than it was a year ago,” Siggins said, noting that realignment has provided an opportunity for counties to work more closely with the state.

“We have a lot less to do a lot more with,” Siggins said. “We have to figure out how we make the most of it.”

San Francisco is often recognized for being a city that thinks differently and cares for its community members differently from other cities across the state and the country.

The same holds for how San Francisco approaches realignment: the city was the first in the state to complete a realignment plan, one that is based on prevention rather than incapacitation, Still said.

The plan focuses on alternatives to incarceration, such as placing realigned inmates in the least-restrictive environment possible–such as by using electronic monitors and allowing them to live at home.

If successful alternatives are not provided, Still said, “the stressors that got them to prison in the first place are certainly going to take them back there again.”

Newly minted Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, who has been at the helm for about three weeks and as a supervisor worked closely with neighbors in the Western Addition neighborhood, was in the audience for part of this morning’s forum and received loud applause when he was handed the microphone.

He said San Francisco has so far received about 300 prisoners from CDCR through realignment and stressed that the sheriff’s department is the “gateway” for those prisoners on their way to probation.

“Our express aim is to reduce recidivism,” he said. “We have a long way to go in San Francisco, just like every county does.”

Access to housing and employment play key roles in the recidivism rate, according to Mirkarimi, who had proposed local legislation that would have given a tax break to companies in San Francisco that hire ex-felons. That legislation was narrowly voted down by the Board of Supervisors in December.

“We still have to answer questions of why there’s barriers to employment,” Mirkarimi said. “As enlightened as San Francisco may be perceived to be, we still have a hell of a lot of work to do … to reduce and dispense of the barriers.”

San Francisco, as one of the few of the state’s 58 counties that experiences undercrowding in its jails, is poised to “demonstrate to the rest of the state … what it means to reform the criminal justice system, because it’s not just about incarceration,” Mirkarimi said.

“It’s not going to work without you, in local communities,” Cate said. “Whole communities change lives.”

Patricia Decker, Bay City News

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