California corrections officials are diverting thousands of parole violators into community programs instead of sending them to prison, hoping this time the experiment doesn’t fail, reports the Sacramento Bee. Since August, the prison population has declined as the state pours millions of dollars into community programs like drug treatment and electronic home detention. Four years ago, a similar effort collapsed. The Bureau of State Audits found in 2005 that the state failed to analyze the programs for effectiveness. Most of the diverted parolees didn’t complete the programs or wound up back in prison anyway – including 242 who committed new crimes when they otherwise could have been back in prison.
This time, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, supported by top criminal justice researchers from around the country, is evaluating the programs as they roll out. The agency is also assessing the participating offenders for risk, trying to avoid violent public-relations disasters. The prison population cuts could save the state $110 million through the next budget year, but it is too soon to tell whether the trend can continue without compromising public safety. The state has suffered one spectacular setback. Last year, it released a parolee named David Kenneth Hamilton despite an assessment that Hamilton had “a high propensity for violence.” Although he violated parole by not attending classes for spousal batterers, officials did not put him back in prison or a community program. On April 20, Hamilton, with another suspect, robbed and killed a man and torched the victim’s house,