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AB 109: Los Angeles County grapples with challenges of prison realignment - exclusive

December 11, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
It's been a year since California started its federal court-ordered mandate to reduce its prison population, which has put mounting pressure on county jails and probation departments.

Los Angeles County probation officials gave Eyewitness News a firsthand account of the challenges of stabilizing an influx of former felons with diverse needs.

From drugs to armed robbery, repeat offender Horace Lackey's rap sheet goes back four decades.

It took a court order to allow Eyewitness News to access the inside of county jail to follow Lackey, 57, after he was placed behind bars again. Lackey struggles with drugs and said he is bipolar.

"Any little thing will just piss me off," Lackey said. "If it is not going my way, then I get pissed off."

Lackey is but one of 11,136 state prisoners released back to Los Angeles County in the past year as part of AB 109, a law enacted to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found overcrowding in state prisons amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, citing that the inmate suicide rate was 80 percent higher than anywhere else in the nation.

To cut the prison population, the state began diverting thousands of offenders - felons whose most recent offenses were non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual - to county jails. That included Lackey, a so-called "non-non-non," and those like him.

Lackey was freed in Los Angeles County, where he committed his crimes. The difference this time is that the Probation Department set up a hub center offering a direct connection to multiple services. Lackey is also homeless, but rejected the shelter first offered.

Probation officers are scrambling to meet multiple needs.

"We have people that have HIV, they have staph infections, tuberculosis," said Jennifer Kaufman, director of the AB 109 hub. "We have had people that are released that are schizophrenic, so they often become violent or they hear noises."

The Probation Department reports that 59 percent of the incoming are hi-risk. Of those released in the past year, arrest warrants were issued for 3,200 of them because they absconded. That's why Lackey recently was escorted out of jail to the hub. He had previously gone missing three times after being released.

About 1,000 offenders come back to the county every month. The biggest challenge is not just to supervise them, but with a coordinated effort achieve what repeated prison terms have failed to do, which is to help reform them.

"These people come from these communities. They would come back to this community regardless," Kaufman said. "The good thing about it now is that we're able to supervise them and give them additional resources that they need to hopefully make it successful this time."

Lackey is wary. He said he does not want supervision, yet he's tired of getting in trouble.

"I woke up and I looked in the mirror and I cried because I know this is not me," Lackey said. "I know that I can do better for myself."

The unprecedented shift in the prison population is straining many county agencies, such as jails, hospitals and treatment facilities. As for probation, officials report it is a work in progress with many uncertainties, much like Lackey's case.

"I'm on probation for a year," Lackey said. "I'm going to make the best of it. I got one year to get my head together and that's what I'm planning on doing."

Lackey was later arrested again on a new violation.


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