By Andy Furillo
By Andy Furillo The Sacramento Bee
Last modified: 2014-02-09T07:41:42Z
Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last September, Sacramento County probation officers conducted a routine search on Sonnita Dixon’s apartment and discovered 20 grams of cocaine. They took Dixon to jail, and prosecutors filed charges against her – for the 22nd time in the past 14 years.
In the old days of California criminal justice, Dixon, 34, very likely would have served a third term in state prison, cycling through with tens of thousands of others like her, who for years have been punching their clocks in and out of the system on small-time convictions.
These days, with the advent of California’s criminal justice realignment, lower-level offenders are part of a new sentencing frontier; and for Dixon and about two dozen other select offenders in Sacramento County, the focus on helping them change has never been more intense.
Under realignment, California for the last 21/2 years has been shifting responsibility for the drug addicts and small-time thieves who used to crowd the state prisons to the 58 counties, giving local jurisdictions latitude in how to deal with the offenders.
In Sacramento, officials have created a “re-entry court” as the local twist on realignment. Now in its seventh month, the program involves officials from every branch of the county’s criminal justice apparatus, who meet weekly to sort through the flood of incoming Sonnita Dixons and gauge who among them might stand a chance of a turnaround.
Defendants who take part in re-entry court agree to plead guilty or no-contest to the charges lodged against them, and are sentenced to a substantial term in county jail. The court then suspends the sentence – but holds the time over their heads as leverage, pressing them to complete a yearlong immersion in drug treatment, vocational courses and other educational classes designed to alter their criminal mind-set.
“If you want to change, if you don’t want to do that time, you’re going to do the program,” said Dixon who took the re-entry court path beneath the sword of a three-year, eight-month jail term. “You’re going to do that program – anybody smart, at least. I’m not looking back.”
If Dixon completes a year in the program, her case will be dismissed.
As of Jan. 23, Sacramento County was responsible for 2,502 offenders who would not have been its problem before October 2011, when realignment became law. The number includes 507 men and women in county jail who otherwise would have been in a California prison and 1,995 people on probation who, in the pre-realignment era, would have been monitored by state parole agents.
The numbers parallel state figures that show 683 fewer prisoners from Sacramento County inside state lockups as of June 30, compared with December 2007. As of June 30, there were also 1,180 fewer Sacramento offenders being monitored by state parole agents.
In the months since Sacramento launched re-entry court, about 25 car snatchers, petty thieves, drug users, commercial burglars and other realigned offenders have come under its jurisdiction. Officials said they hope to expand the program by 50 to 100 more offenders, depending on how much additional funding the state provides for treatment programs.
Superior Court Judge Laurie M. Earl pushed for creation of the re-entry court last year when she presided over the local bench. She said she would consider the program a success if it can keep just one offender from coming back into the system.
“If we can give them the tools they need that they wouldn’t ordinarily get, and lower their recidivism and save the sheriff some bed space, then I think that is successful,” Earl said. “My goal is that this becomes part of our culture.”
While the numbers so far are small, the hopes are big. Sacramento probation chief Lee Seale, who chairs the Community Corrections Partnership that oversees the rollout of realignment at the local level, said re-entry court is “critically important” toward making the whole thing work.
"It brings all of us together so we’re on the same page, communicating as we work through these new challenges,” Seale said.
Breaking down walls
Like the drug and mental health courts that have been around for years, re-entry courts are “collaborative” by design. Judges and representatives for the Probation Department, the district attorney and the public defender – with input from treatment providers and the Sheriff’s Department – cull through lists of eligible offenders to determine who might benefit. The idea is to break down the adversarial nature of the criminal justice system – prosecution vs. defense – and get everybody on the same team.
The process begins with attorneys from the Public Defender’s Office sifting through cases to find candidates who meet the eligibility criteria. Offenders in for a serious, violent or sexual offense do not qualify. If the DA signs off, probation officers work up a pre-sentencing report for the judge to stamp for the re-entry court transfer.
Once they make their selections, the attitudes of some of the professionals tend to soften. Public defenders sometimes go along with recommendations that a few days in jail for a drug-relapsed client – “flash incarceration,” they call it – might get him back on track. Prosecutors have been known to write letters on behalf of offenders they formerly targeted for jail time.
“We’re not fighting all the time,” said Chief Assistant Public Defender Steve Lewis. “It’s a different role for us, and it’s a different role for the DA. It’s turning everything on its head from the typical criminal justice system that we’re all used to.”
Once the offenders are accepted into the program, they appear weekly in front of Sacramento Superior Court Judge Larry Brown, who goes over their progress reports. Brown cheers them on if they’re staying on track – and orders them locked up if they have reoffended, fled or tested positive for drugs.
Brown is the former acting U.S. attorney of the Eastern District of California, as well as a former executive director of the California District Attorneys Association. He sees re-entry court as an efficient way for the county to manage lower-level offenders in a time of limited resources.
“We’re seeking to address offenders with long criminal histories and trying to get them on a different path,” said Brown, who has been a judge for four years. “I think that’s one of the charges we have under realignment, to look not just at the offense but at the offender – what drives his or her criminality, whether it’s drug abuse or mental illness or a combination of both, or lack of opportunities, and see if those factors can be addressed.”
The idea, Brown said, is “to reduce the number of inmates serving in the criminal justice system at any given time,” and combat a recidivism rate that is the nation’s worst: Traditionally, 70 percent of California prison inmates are back in prison within three years of their release.
‘I didn’t want to fail’
Brown holds court every Friday in Department 1 on the ground floor of Sacramento’s downtown courthouse. On a recent Friday, a couple dozen offenders, most of them men, waited outside the courtroom while the re-entry team went over their files with the judge. Many of the offenders sported tattoos that covered their arms or climbed above the collar. A couple wore suits, as if coming for a job interview.
In a session last month, Brown bantered with the offenders, telling the earliest qualifier in the program, Barry Vierra, that he is the “canary in the coal mine.” Convicted multiple times for car theft, Vierra, 49, is a recovering methamphetamine addict who suffered an early relapse in the program. Brown ordered him into a 90-day residential program run by Volunteers of America that emphasizes sober-living classes.
Since he finished the treatment program four months ago, Vierra has stayed clean, employed and trouble-free. He has a two-year, six-month sentence for car theft that has been held in abeyance.
“No pressure, Barry,” Brown told Vierra. “Just keep making us look good.”
On his way out of court, Vierra knocked knuckles with Deputy District Attorney Chris Carlson, who had written a letter on Vierra’s behalf to Placer County authorities. Vierra was on probation in Placer County when he was charged in the Sacramento car theft that landed him in re-entry court, and Carlson persuaded Placer to hold off on revoking his probation.
“I don’t have a problem writing the letter,” Carlson said. “This is what this program is all about. If he messes up, he’ll do the time he owes us here and the time he owes them there.”
Vierra said the DA’s support is just the kind of motivation he needs to help him plug away at recovery and get back into mainstream Sacramento. He is living in his own apartment, paying the rent with money he makes doing power-washing and wood restoration. Vierra regularly returns to the VOA program on North Fifth Street to pump up the recovery fraternity.
“They’ve put a lot of hard work into this and I didn’t want to let them down,” Vierra said. “I was the first guy to receive re-entry court, and I didn’t want to fail.”
During the sessions, Brown calls up the re-entry participants one at a time, cracking jokes and adding a personal touch they rarely see in a judge. There are smiles and laughter from just about everybody in the courtroom, from the judge to the clerk to the attorneys and probation officers. One after the next, the offenders talk about their efforts to change their criminal thinking and pursue recovery.
Dixon walked into re-entry court last month, in her seventh week in the program, pushing a stroller with her 11-month-old son. She had spent her week attending drug treatment and life-skill classes at the Adult Day Reporting Center on Del Paso Boulevard, compiling a perfect attendance record and demonstrating a will to take advantage of her re-entry court deal.
“Hi, buddy,” the judge said to the child. He turned to Dixon and told her that in the team meeting, “They just couldn’t say enough good things (about how) you are doing in the program.”
Dixon beamed while the other offenders in the courtroom cheered.
Not always pleasant
Some weeks the court sessions are not so pleasant. Two weeks ago, Brown issued bench warrants for two men who walked away from the VOA program, and he locked up a woman who had tested positive for drugs. Plainly displeased with her new circumstance, she left the courtroom spitting expletives.
When Dixon returned for her weekly appearance, her cheery demeanor had evaporated. She said her probation officer had made her kick out a couch-surfing friend because officers found pot on him during a routine search of her apartment.
“I feel sometimes like I want to throw in the towel,” Dixon said. “Jail time is easier. You don’t have the pressure. You don’t have to worry about being tested. Something about it settles into your bones.”
Dixon lives on a stretch of Howe Avenue in Arden Arcade just off the Capital City Freeway, where black iron fences surround stucco apartments. The neighborhood is one of the poorest in Sacramento, marked by drug dealing, prostitution and street crime.
Many of the units in her complex are vacant and boarded, and she talks about “crazy gangsters” who live down the street. Dixon said she lived that street life for years and it’s a challenge staying away from it now.
“I just got to stay in the house,” said Dixon. “I just watch movies – I cope by watching movies. I go to church every Saturday and just try to do positive stuff.”
She had a setback last week when the landlord evicted her sister – her child care backstop – because the sister wasn’t on the lease. Dixon said her probation officers also wanted the sister out, contending her lifestyle wasn’t conducive to Dixon’s recovery. Her departure left Dixon in a bit of a bind: the sister didn’t pay rent, but she helped stock the refrigerator. But Dixon acknowledges it’s probably healthier to have her own space.
“I can’t have that around me,” she said about drinking and partying. “These people (in the Probation Department), they know what’s a healthy lifestyle and what’s an unhealthy lifestyle.”
Inside the courtroom on a recent Friday, she told the judge, “I’m struggling right now.” She has been a drug addict for a long time, she said, and that thinking doesn’t just go away because you catch a break in court.
Brown said he liked Dixon’s self-awareness. He told her that was reason enough to stay positive.
“I hope you pat yourself on the back for realizing that,” he said.
‘Best and brightest minds’
County officials say it’s too early for conclusive data on whether re-entry court is a success, but the majority of participants are staying sober and out of trouble. Judge Brown said the county expects to celebrate the first graduations next summer, starting with Vierra, at which point “we’ll have enough experience under our belts” to make an assessment.
The main constraint on expanding the program involves funding. This fiscal year, California is spending $1.08 billion on realignment, up from $940 million in 2012-13, according to the Department of Finance. Sacramento is receiving $51 million in realignment funds. Most of that – more than $39 million – is going to jail operations, while another $10.5 million has been set aside for probation. Re-entry court gets none of it.
Of the probation money, $4.1 million pays for three county reporting centers that accommodate 650 offenders, a number that has expanded as a result of realignment. The centers hire contractors to run the rehabilitation programs that the re-entry court relies on. Another $406,000 in realignment money pays for the 40-bed Volunteers of America residential program.
County officials say the state will have to come through with more money for day reporting centers, rehab services and residential treatment beds if programs like re-entry court are to expand. In his proposed budget, Gov. Jerry Brown calls for a $13 million bump for community corrections next fiscal year.
“More resources have to be directed toward the programs out in the community that are going to make these guys succeed,” said Lewis, the assistant public defender.
Joan Petersilia, one of the state’s top criminologists and the faculty co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, recently published a 256-page report on where California stands two years into its realigned new world. The results are mixed. Crime is up slightly, but the stats largely reflect law-breaking that took place before the $1 billion in programs got put in place, Petersilia said.
The good news, she said, can be found in places like Sacramento, taking a spin with something like re-entry court.
“Whether or not California can get it right, the legacy of realignment is you have the best and brightest minds thinking about it,” Petersilia said. “It’s 58 counties experimenting with whatever they think works for them.”