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Humanity, and the Costs of Locking Up Parolees

April 21, 2002|JAMES RICCI

Vince Martinez taps the toe of his cowboy boot on the bare floor, waiting for Ron Sotelo to finish searching. "You're skating on very, very thin ice, Mr. Sotelo," he says. Sotelo, 47, gaunt, shirtless and bleary-eyed, peels through bunched handfuls of papers and rummages in a rickety night stand. Try as he might, however, he can't come up with the doctor's letter that explains why he's been delayed in entering a drug rehabilitation program at the L.A. Mission.

"I don't believe there is a letter," Martinez says. "And, you're back to using. I can read it in your face, in your eyes. You need to get back in a program. Your other alternative is you're going back to jail."

This encounter takes place in a shabby Skid Row-adjacent hotel room. The setting, however, belies what is at stake for you and me. If Martinez, a parole agent for the California Department of Corrections, can keep Sotelo on parole for another year, it will cost us taxpayers $2,636. If he can't, if he sends Sotelo back to prison for a year as a parole violator, our bill will be nearly 10 times that, $25,607.

Even that is pocket change compared to what we will pay if Sotelo commits another crime. He already has done two stretches in prison, for armed robbery and burglary. A third-strike offense could send him away for 25 years to life, which would ring us up for the jackpot, a minimum of $640,175.

Martinez works in a special parole unit for so-called "second strikers." A compactly built 38-year-old with swept-back black hair and braided gold necklace, he worked for a decade as a corrections officer in maximum-security lockups before switching five years ago to parole agentry. Initially, Martinez was a stern, by-the-book man, "violating" parolees back to prison for any transgression of the rules. He's since learned the wisdom of flexibility, the importance of the larger picture. "Our job is to keep these guys in the community," he says. "It's too easy to just lock them up."

Too easy and impossibly expensive. About 121,000 parolees live in California (40,400 of them in L.A. County). The additional cost of sending them all back to prison for a year would be $3.1 billion, not even considering the cost of building additional facilities to accommodate them among the 160,000 already locked up. The state's entire corrections budget is only $4.8 billion.

Clearly, parole is what has kept our broad-brush punitive approach to criminal justice from bankrupting us. Yet we hate the idea of parolees in our midst, because they tend to be hard to employ, substance addicted and possessed of the prison-bred social skills of Neanderthals. Whenever the corrections department tries to establish or expand a parole office to meet the growing need, the local community rises up in ire.

Vince Martinez works in the middle of this contradiction, visiting his wards unannounced at their residences twice a month, searching their belongings, demanding proof they're living up to the conditions of their parole. He's learned when to bend to help his charges make it through their three years of so-called "community custody."

In the stuffy hotel room, Sotelo continues searching, avoiding Martinez's eyes. At one point, in response to Martinez's relentless questioning, he admits he smoked crack cocaine two days earlier. He swears, however, that he's determined to do something about his drug use. "I walk down the street, and people look at me funny," he says. "The little children, they run away from me. I think, 'I have to stop this.' "

And, from a last forlorn fistful of papers, he extracts the letter from the doctor. Martinez reads it and considers Sotelo a moment.

"I'll be back in two hours to take you to the mission myself," he says. "You be here, and you better be packed and ready."

Sotelo in rehab again. Martinez knows it probably will prove futile. He also knows, however, that a drug user typically has to try many programs before he finds one that works for him.

Martinez's supervisor calls him "the toughest of all my agents." Yet Martinez says his view of those under his authority has changed since his maximum-security days. "Out here," he says, "you meet their families, their wives and children. You see they're not just convicts. They're people, and people make mistakes."

Recently, an appeals court ruled that California's judges should have more discretion in third-strike cases and not be forced to levy automatic life sentences for petty offenses. A year-and-a-half ago, California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 36, which allows nonviolent drug offenders to be sent to rehab instead of prison.

In other words, we as a society may be evolving along the same trajectory as Martinez. Let's hope so. Wholesale incarceration of offenders not only costs more than we can afford, but aggravates many of our woes while at best postponing others. We keep packing these people off, see, but they keep coming back to us.

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