SACRAMENTO — The program seemed a model of corrections reform in tight fiscal times: The mostly white-collar criminals who were enrolled saved taxpayers money by living in group homes instead of in state prison and held jobs that helped cover rent and restitution to victims.
Among the graduates of the state's two restitution centers, both in Los Angeles, is former Compton Mayor Omar Bradley, who provided job training for the disabled in Carson while serving time for using his city-issued credit card for personal expenses.
But on Thanksgiving Eve, state officials shut down the program and sent the 74 enrolled offenders to prisons, not even giving them time to tell their employers. Corrections department officials, ordered to cut their budget by $800 million this year, said California could no longer afford the program.
The decision perplexed prison-reform advocates, who called it a bureaucratic blunder born of government inefficiency.
"It's pretty stupid," said Robert Pratt, executive director of Volunteers of America's Los Angeles branch, which ran the two centers. "These are people who were working and paying for their upkeep and paying back victims. It is counterproductive to put them back in prison, where the taxpayer has to foot the whole bill."
The news came to the nonprofit Nov. 20 in a terse notice that the corrections department had "determined at this time that only contracts for services and functions of state government deemed critical and exempt will be utilized. Your contract is not exempt, therefore performance under contract . . . is hereby immediately suspended."
Scott Kernan, undersecretary for operations at the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, pointed out that the centers had about three dozen empty beds, and said the state could not afford to carry a program not operating at full capacity.
To be eligible, inmates had to owe restitution to their victims and have sentences of three years or less for nonviolent and nonsexual offenses. Kernan said the state could not find enough eligible volunteers to fill all 110 beds. Closing the centers will eliminate $500,000 in contract costs for the state this year, he said.
"Faced with the overall budget situation and the underutilization of those beds, I still think it was a good common-sense decision by the department," Kernan said.
Pratt said the problem could have been solved by consolidating the two centers or expanding eligibility. Kernan said his office tried to fill the beds, but negotiations with the Volunteers of America to expand eligibility failed.
He said that most of the contract cost would have been deferred by income from the convicts, and that the contract cost is far less than the expense of putting the inmates back in prison cells.
The group-home contract cost the state $50 per inmate per day, Pratt said. Now those inmates are costing the state at least $97 per day in prison, according to corrections officials.
The difference, based on the number of inmates, is about $1.2 million per year.
A third of the offenders' earnings went to the state to help cover their upkeep; another third went to victims and the final third went into an account to cover job-related costs such as transportation.
Beth Watson's husband, who was convicted of a securities crime involving an illegal business scheme, lived in one of the restitution houses for 72 days. During that time, he earned $15 an hour as a customer service representative.
He and some 30 other men were transferred from the house on La Cienega Avenue in West Los Angeles to a men's prison in Chino.
"It's ludicrous," Watson said. "It makes no sense."
Kernan said the restitution center participants will be considered for other programs such as firefighting camps that cost taxpayers less than keeping them in prison. Watson said her husband is 49 years old and just survived a bout with cancer, and does not feel suited to fighting fires.
Prison-reform advocates say the decision to close the centers appears to run counter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's mandate that many more inmates be sent to community centers to reduce the prison population and the cost of housing them.
There are some 171,000 inmates in California prisons built to handle 100,000, and a panel of three federal judges is considering whether to cap the population and possibly release up to 52,000 inmates.
The governor has proposed shifting up to 7,000 offenders from prisons to "reentry facilities," to smooth the transition of offenders back to society in a way that addresses the state's 70% recidivism rate.
"You are going to need more programs like this, not less," said Joan Petersilia, a criminologist who studies prisons at UC Irvine and has advised the Schwarzenegger administration on corrections issues.
Harriet Salarno, chairwoman of Crime Victims United California, said she supported the opening of the centers as a way to make amends to victims of nonviolent crime and is concerned about how the closures might affect restitution.
Alleging that the suspension violated a contract provision requiring 30 days' notice of cancellation, Pratt said he has filed a claim against the state.