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L.A. County struggles with issue of felons bolting from probation

Nearly 20% of former state prisoners now under county supervision have outstanding arrest warrants for absconding.

January 04, 2014|By Abby Sewell
  • Deputy probation officer Paul Meza, left, talks with two of his clients, Peter Azevedo, 26, and Eugene Molina, 42, at a sober living home in Downey. Azevedo, a former state prison inmate, has repeatedly failed to adhere to the terms of his probation in L.A. County. He is not the only one.
Deputy probation officer Paul Meza, left, talks with two of his clients,… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

Peter Azevedo is a hard man to keep on the straight and narrow.

Released from state prison in early 2012, he has been in and out of L.A. County jail at least half a dozen times, serving a few days, a few weeks or a few months for skipping out on probation, using drugs and carrying a knife. As of Christmas Eve, he was gone again.

Two years into a major redistribution of responsibility for convicted felons, Los Angeles County officials are struggling to deal with a recalcitrant group of former state inmates like Azevedo, who keep absconding and cycling through an overcrowded jail system.

California's so-called realignment program, adopted to reduce state prison overcrowding, is redirecting tens of thousands of felons convicted of nonviolent crimes to local jails to serve their time. And local probation officials, instead of state parole agents, now monitor most nonviolent convicts exiting prison.

More than 18,000 ex-state prisoners have come under L.A. County oversight since October 2011. About 10,000 remain under Probation Department supervision and, as of last month, almost 20% of those had outstanding arrest warrants for absconding.

Though hundreds of millions of dollars in increased state funding has been allocated to the county for the realignment program, local officials say it's not enough to lock up, rehabilitate and keep track of the expanded population of criminals. Moreover, they contend that most of those the state indicated would be non-serious offenders have been assessed by local law enforcement officers to be high risks for committing new crimes.

County agencies are struggling to get the new, more hardened group of offenders to report to their probation officers and stick with mental health and substance abuse treatment programs.

"That's the labor-intensive piece of all this ... trying to chase those folks all down," county Supervisor Don Knabe said during a board review of the program last month

One measure of the challenge has been the use of a new tactic to manage repeat offenders.

Under realignment, local probation officers can, without a court hearing, send felons who violate the terms of their release to jail for "flash" incarcerations of up to 10 days. Previously, parole officers often sent violators back to state prison — a costly and some argue ineffective punishment for nonviolent offenders.

Use of the new tactic in Los Angeles County jumped nearly 300% in the second year of realignment to 10,000 "flash" arrests, a county analysis shows. Nearly half of those ex-inmates were incarcerated two or more times, with one jailed 13 times.

About 60% of a group of 500 felons shifted to county supervision in the first year of realignment were arrested for new crimes or violating probation — slightly higher than the 56% recidivism rate for former state prisoners overall, according to data from county and state studies.

Jeffrey Callison, a spokesman with the state's corrections department, noted that those statistics show a slight reduction in rearrests of former prison inmates. That is cause to be "cautiously optimistic" that the program will disrupt cycles of crime in the future, he said.

However, the figures also show more churning through the jail system among ex-prisoners like Azevedo. Since realignment began, the proportion of former state inmates arrested four or more times in the first year after their release increased from 7% to 12%.

That's partly the result of an increasing reliance on flash jail stays. They are seen as a less costly and less severe option for getting nonviolent offenders off the street — and getting probationers to change their behavior — than longer sentences that exacerbate overcrowding in county jails.

Supporters of realignment say the mini-sentences appear to be working: Most felons jailed for the short terms haven't been rearrested on similar violations. They also note that repeat offenders can be sentenced to three months in jail.

The flash arrest strategy drew criticism in at least one high-profile case last year. In June, two months after being released from state prison, Dustin James Kinnear, a 26-year-old transient, was accused of fatally stabbing 23-year-old Christine Calderon when she refused to give him money after taking his picture panhandling in Hollywood. Kinnear had a lengthy criminal record, a history of mental illness and had failed to report to his probation officer as required after his release from prison in April.

He had been flash incarcerated three times over two months and arrested on a new battery charge, but his probation was not revoked. A county probe of the case found breakdowns in communication between agencies and confusion in the Probation Department over who was responsible for initiating revocation of Kinnear's probation.

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