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Ups, Downs, Praise, Criticism Torment Rent-a-Jail Business

July 20, 1986|JIM SCHACHTER | Times Staff Writer

Business was booming for Glen Cornist just four months ago. Western States Re-Entry Corp., the work-furlough center he operates as a private alternative to San Diego County's overcrowded jail, had a near-monopoly on referrals from the municipal and superior courts.

The monopoly was broken late in February. A client's complaints prompted an inquiry into Western States by the county Probation Department and a Superior Court judge. There were no charges pressed or formal findings of wrongdoing. But the courts virtually halted referrals to Cornist and his center.

Instead, judges began sending probationers to Center Court, a competing work-furlough center that opened in January. From no clients at the start of the year, Center Court last week had more than 40, its officials said. At Western States, meantime, the head count has fallen from near 90 in February to 24 last week, Cornist said.

At $500 per head monthly, that's quite a turnaround. Cornist figures he has lost $120,000 since early in the year. "My business is going down the tubes," he said forlornly last week.

Welcome to the turbulent world of private corrections.

Non-existent in San Diego only two years ago, private work-furlough centers suddenly have become a significant option for judges sentencing felons convicted of non-violent crimes.

They've also become a major hassle, the subject of finger-pointing and recrimination as operators and employees of competing centers trade charges of misconduct and judges try to sort out the facts about an almost wholly unregulated industry.

"We had a market and we had an entrepreneurial response, and government, in its usual fashion, is plodding along and trying to react to the mess it creates," said Superior Court Judge Richard Huffman.

The market consists of criminals whom judges want to punish without sending them to the county's jam-packed jails or to state prison. One alternative is work-furlough--programs in which inmates pay for the privilege of being locked up, except for the hours when they are at work.

Some defendants serve local jail time in the county's own work-furlough program, which houses 125 inmates and will expand to handle 40 to 50 more later this year, according to Vicki Markey, a chief deputy probation officer.

But the wait for a space in the county's program, now six weeks, at times has been months. And the county will not accept certain groups of criminals, including most sex offenders and drug sellers, or defendants with jobs that are difficult to monitor.

That's the void filled by private work-furlough centers.

There are three in San Diego County: Western States, the first; Center Court, currently the favored, and Alternative Resources, the newest. Cornist's wife, Barbara, opened Alternative Resources last month in a building on Imperial Avenue that was abandoned by Western States as its clientele drifted away.

Judges cannot sentence criminals to serve time at the private centers. But defendants who request placement and are judged good risks are ordered to enroll in one of the centers as a condition of being placed on probation.

If defendants break center rules, lose their jobs, commit further offenses or otherwise backslide, their probations can be revoked and the judge who sentenced them can send them to jail or prison.

But nobody has disciplinary power over the work-furlough centers themselves--not the judges, not the Probation Department, not the county sheriff or the state Department of Corrections.

"There is no certification process for these programs, nor is there a government agency that supervises them," Huffman said. "You get a business license and go."

Western States' difficulties, however, have forced officialdom in San Diego County to focus on the lack of regulation.

Huffman conducted a hearing at the end of February, after a Western States inmate complained about sanitation problems at the center and probation officers reported concerns about the program's management.

"I became very concerned there were not sufficient controls on behalf of the court," Huffman said. "We were taking too much on faith, and I wanted to make sure we did more to assure the integrity of the process."

At the hearing, Gerald Williams, chief deputy probation officer for adult services, said "the lack of supervision" at Western States was his staff's primary criticism. Officers also complained that inadequate exits from the program's buildings posed a safety problem and that toilet facilities were insufficient. One probation officer reported a resident's observation of marijuana and cocaine use by inmates.

According to a transcript of the hearing, Glen Cornist told Huffman that most of the criticisms were unfounded. He acknowledged sharing the concerns about the reliability of some residents' drug tests, but said that and other problems had been resolved by staff changes.

"I did uncover some items that needed some immediate attention, and we gave it our immediate attention," Cornist said.

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