In 2014, California voters freed about 13,500 low-level offenders from crowded prisons and jails. But many ex-inmates have traded incarceration for a cycle of homelessness, drug abuse and petty crime.
Jill Castellano , Brett Kelman , Kristen Hwang , Cheri Carlson , Amy Wu and Jenny Espino , USA TODAY Network-California
A criminal history
For the first time in 20 years, Wayne Woods was a free man. Homeless, but free.
Woods, 53, who has been a cocaine and heroin drug addict for most of his life, was released by Prop 47 in March after serving 20 years in prison. With nowhere to go, Woods found his way to Los Angeles’s infamous Skid Row, where tents and cardboard shelters crowd the streets between soup kitchens and free clinics. Needles litter the ground. Drugs are used in plain sight. Woods could not resist for long.
He was rearrested in June after a police officer spotted him smoking crack on a street corner. At the police station, Woods realized how much things had changed. The same drugs that had locked him up for years felt like they were barely illegal at all. He was back on the streets in two weeks.
“In my case, it’s worse,” Woods said, wandering through downtown LA, carrying everything he owns in a backpack. “In prison, everything was provided. I had a place to stay. I had meals. I had a job, if I wanted to work. And if I wanted to do some drugs, I could have gotten that in there too.”
Like Woods, many of the drug addicts released under Prop 47 found it easy to slip back into their old habits after leaving the system because they didn’t or couldn’t access rehab programs.
Their plight is the latest chapter in California’s century-long neglect of the addicted and the mentally ill.
In the same way addicts have spent generations in the prison system, the U.S. once locked up the mentally ill in asylums. After World War II, Congress promised to replace the shameful asylum system with a network of community mental health centers. The asylums closed, but most of the centers never opened. Patients were freed, but not cured.
California made the same mistake. In 1968, the state shifted responsibility for the mentally ill to the counties but never followed through with funding. Then-Governor Ronald Reagan closed nine state mental hospitals but twice vetoed the transfer of funds for county treatment programs. In 15 years, the mental hospital population fell 77 percent.
A lack of treatment options and an era of tough-on-crime policies imprisoned more and more of California’s inseparable mentally ill, addicted and homeless populations. Between 1980 and 2000, California’s prison population quintupled and the proportion of inmates charged with drug crimes tripled. The state raced to build 21 new prisons over those years, but it wasn’t enough to keep pace: The corrections system reached 175 percent capacity by 2000.
“Jails turned into the mental health system,” said Currie, the UC Irvine criminologist, “so in many ways we have to finally grapple with the problem we should’ve fixed in the first place.”
California came to a crossroads in 2011 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state’s prison crowding had gotten so bad it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
California responded with AB 109, which moved thousands of non-serious and non-violent offenders into county jails. Three years later, when jails were overcrowded too, Prop 47 released low-level felons, including thousands of mentally ill and drug addicted inmates. But treatment programs with empty beds are still hard to find.
“We talk about the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation – that doesn’t really exist. People come out and it’s like they time traveled,” said Eunisses Hernandez, an advocate at the Drug Policy Alliance, a reform group. “If we want criminal justice reform and social justice reform to work, it’s not just about fixing the machine that’s incarcerating people, but it’s about fixing the system that comes out and supports them when they come out.”
For Lopez, the meth addict in the LA suburbs, that support system felt out of reach.
Lopez, who suffers from bi-polar disorder, grew up in Southern California and fell into addiction quickly. He drank beer and smoked pot in high school, but while his friends just dabbled, he used daily. Lopez dropped out of school and joined the Marine Corps, where he started using harder drugs. He was kicked out of the Marines in 1981 after getting arrested in a home invasion robbery case.
That case was Lopez’s first strike. California’s once-rigid “Three Strikes” sentencing system mandated a life sentence to any defendant with two violent or serious prior convictions – even if their third crime was just drug possession or shoplifting. The system was responsible for locking up many of the defendants that Prop 47 eventually let out.
Lopez’ third strike came in 1994, when a Glenn County police officer caught him with 1.8 grams of meth and a sawed-off shotgun during a traffic stop. Lopez got life in prison for felony drug possession and the gun charge was dropped. He was released in April 2015 after Prop 47 reduced his conviction to a misdemeanor.
Lopez found himself in an unfamiliar world. Prison had done nothing to cure his addiction. Drugs were a familiar crutch, and they were rampant.
“It was like putting a kid loose in the candy store and telling them there’s no consequences,” Lopez said. “Eat whatever you want. Party up. That was me.”
Lopez joined and then quit rehab programs twice after his release, saying the strict rules felt too much like prison. With no place left to go, Lopez called his cousin he barely knew who owned an auto shop. The cousin offered him a couch to sleep on, but set one rule – no drugs in the shop. Lopez broke that rule quickly, so the cousin kicked him out.
For the next five weeks, Lopez slept on the streets, hidden away in a burrow dug under a roadside bush, sheltered with cardboard and blankets. In November, Lopez’s cousin let him move back into his shop even though he’s still using meth.
“This is where I ended up at,” Lopez said. “This is where my decision making got me, where my addiction got me – to nothing, zero.”
The waiting game
Rochelle Solombrino had a beer in her hand and two twelve-packs in the car when she saw the flashing lights in her rearview mirror. She knew she was headed to prison, but she was going to finish her beers first.
So she fled, chugging Coors Light, as the police cars multiplied behind her and the helicopters swarmed overhead. Ten beers and 25 minutes later, she pulled over.
The 2007 car chase, for which Solombrino served 18 months in prison, was just the latest on a lengthy rap sheet – 47 misdemeanors over four decades. Every crime had been fueled by drugs or alcohol. Solombrino was in the grasp of her addiction and she thought she could never escape.
And yet she did. After her release, Solombrino joined a treatment program and has never used drugs or alcohol since. Now seven years sober, she knows she couldn’t have recovered without a program. She also knows how badly the addicts released by Prop 47 need them too.
“Those were active addicts. They may still be active addicts,” said Solombrino, 50, who retroactively reduced four felonies under Prop 47. She is now operations coordinator at Fred Brown Recovery Services in San Pedro, where she got clean. “Those are people that needed help, that need help, and I can reassure you that they didn’t all get help. So, definitely, we need more programs.”
In-patient treatment programs can help even the most serious addicts, according to scientific studies, but hundreds of thousands of California’s addicts have never gone through rehabilitation. Some write off the idea of rehab, too addicted to give their habits up or concerned they’ll never make it through. But those who seek help can be asked to wait weeks or months before beginning treatment, and by then, the urge to recover has vanished into the next pill, drink or syringe.
“If you were to call any treatment facility in Los Angeles County looking for a residential bed, they’ll tell you there’s a waiting list,” said David Ramage, an administrator at Impact Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center in Pasadena, which has a 90-day wait list. “People die waiting to get treatment. That is the bottom line.”
The shortage of treatment beds is a result of inadequate funding. California has underinvested in drug rehab for decades, policy experts said, and Prop 47 is the latest example.
Prop 47 advocates, who promised voters the law would save hundreds of millions of dollars in prison costs, have accused Gov. Jerry Brown of diverting the money into the state’s general fund. A recent Legislative Analyst’s Office report projected $130 million in savings for the past fiscal year, but the state deposited $67.4 million into its Prop 47 fund.
Brown’s office directed comment on Prop 47 savings to the state Department of Finance. H.D. Palmer, the department’s deputy director of external affairs, said the state did not “lowball” the savings.
“One of the worst things we could do is lead to false expectations,” he said, “and therefore (have) people budget on a higher level of savings at the local level that in the end is not achievable.”
Using the Prop 47 fund, the state will put $34 million into mental health treatment, substance abuse and diversion programs this fiscal year. The agency responsible for divvying up the money has spent 18 months working out a grant process, but they only began accepting bids for funding last month.
For now, treatment facilities are cash-strapped and scrambling. And even when the money finally arrives, expansion will not be easy.
Neighborhoods sometimes push back when treatment centers try to expand, said Doug Burg, an administrator for the Amity Foundation, which runs reentry programs for current and former inmates throughout the western U.S. If that hurdle is cleared, each new facility still needs a county contract and time to train employees.
“For us to really move away from mass incarceration, I think these propositions are absolutely essential,” Burg said. “But it’s hard because often we think of these big policy changes and we don’t think of the operational needs for the people, the service providers, that have to run these programs.”
Compared to the criminal justice system, however, treatment is a far more cost-effective strategy for handling California’s 565,000 drug-dependent adults. In-patient treatment programs, which typically last from six months to a year, cost about $20,000 per person – less than a third of the annual cost to keep an addict in jail or prison. And by treating addiction, the root cause of many drug and property crimes, rehab reduces the chance people commit crimes in the future.
“When you do drug treatment, it is just hands down cheaper and more effective,” said drug policy expert Dina Perrone, a criminology professor at California State University, Long Beach.
While community treatment centers struggle to keep up with demand, drug court programs are emptying. Drug courts traditionally fill their seats through a “felony hammer” strategy that uses incarceration to pressure addicts into recovery. When an addict is arrested, a drug court judge gives them a choice: spend years behind bars or join a year-long rehab program.
After Prop 47, however, the formula doesn’t work. Incarceration is unlikely, and misdemeanor probation is shorter and less restrictive than drug court, so many offenders choose it instead.
The results are clear. At the longest running drug court program in Los Angeles, run out of a narrow building on the edge of Skid Row, enrollment has plummeted from 80 people to only four. Ramage, who leads the drug court program, said Prop 47 “tore it apart.”
Policy experts quickly counter that drug court programs still criminalize addiction. Those who can’t complete the programs end up behind bars regardless.
“That’s not the way the system should work,” said Hernandez, from the Drug Policy Alliance. “That felony hammer has only been good to incarcerate generations of our communities.”
Solombrino, from the 2007 car chase, was locked up dozens of times, but that never helped her addiction. Treatment was the only effective solution for a life of crime and drug abuse.
Solombrino’s parents divorced when she was a toddler. At her private Christian grade school, she struggled to cope with being gay. And at age six, she was molested by her step-father. By the time she was sixteen years old – when she was regularly using pot, cocaine and PCP – she couldn’t hide her emotions any longer, so she turned to her dad for help.
“I told him, ‘I don’t feel good. I don’t feel good inside. I feel a lot of anxiety,’” she remembers now, 34 years later. “He said, ‘Take a drink, you’ll get over it.’ In our culture, you don’t stress on those kinds of things. Take a drink, everything’s going to be fine. So that’s what I did.”
No amount of family conversation, jail time, warnings from judges or interventions from her friends convinced Solombrino to change. But in treatment, she faced her darkest memories head on. She wrote an 18-page autobiography of her life, she attached three emotions to every significant event and she drafted letters to each of the people who appeared in her story. She apologized to the people in her life who she had wronged. She learned from others who were facing addiction and she was congratulated by her new support network each day she stayed clean.
“Every treatment step that we did, this weight just kept being lifted and lifted and lifted and I was free. All of a sudden I was light again,” Solombrino said. “I felt like a child, like oh my god I can literally start over again. I don’t have to be defined by my past but what I’m trying to do today to change.”
“That, for me, was the freedom of purging all my demons and all my secrets and all my life,” she said.