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US prison inmates returning to society: How will they be received?

States, eager to save money and adopt alternatives to incarceration, release inmates in record numbers. Is society ready for the surge? 

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Ruling in a prisoners' rights lawsuit, a federal court ordered the state to cut overcrowding to 137.5 percent of capacity. At first the state resisted. But then, last May, the US Supreme Court upheld the ruling. The result is a far-reaching and controversial "realignment" plan – a move to reduce the state prison population by shifting thousands of inmates to local facilities and ordering others to serve time in community-based programs.

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Under the plan, those convicted of "non-serious, non-violent, non-sex offenses" will serve their time in county jails instead of state prisons. People on parole or probation who violate their release conditions will serve their new sentences in county facilities, too. Already, since last October, corrections officials say they have reduced the state prison population by 20,000. California expects to save about $1.1 billion by the realignment's completion, which officials recently admitted will extend beyond the court-mandated June 2013 deadline.

Yet the shift is putting new burdens on counties, many of which don't have the money or jail beds to cope with the influx. They are being forced to release some inmates early.

Los Angeles County, which runs the largest local jail system in the country, with 17,200 inmates, is expected to receive another 8,300 prisoners under realignment. Despite reducing sentences and allowing some inmates to serve their time in the community, the county's jail population has gone up by 2,000 since October.

Still, the man in charge at the local level, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, insists the system will be able to handle the additional prisoners.

"What makes the difference is if you have education programs like we're doing in the Los Angeles County jail system," he says, referring to drug treatment and other programs. "If you have to resort to early release, at least they're better off than when they came in."

* * *

John Cadogan typifies those who will help determine the success of California's plan. A burly former tradesman with a sleeve of tattoos, Mr. Cadogan sits in a conference room at the men's state prison at Chino, one hour east of Los Angeles. He faces a quandary.

He is within weeks of being released from the minimum-security wing of the prison, where he has been serving time on drug charges. In a counseling session, he asks his therapy group what to do about his ex-girlfriend. She wants to get together with him when he gets out, but she's using meth, Cadogan says, which is his former drug of choice. Should he do it?

Cadogan says he'd like to see her briefly and then concentrate on his drug-treatment program. "I'm going to come back clean, I guarantee you that," he says, stroking his mutton chops.

The 14 inmates in the room – a rare assemblage of African-Americans, Hispanics, and whites in a prison where people of different races won't even mingle to play softball – are skeptical.

"What if she don't agree with what you're talking about and she starts some [stuff] with you and the police come?" one prisoner asks. Other inmates nod.

Cadogan says she wouldn't do that: She's the mother of his daughter. Members of the group press him. How can you be sure? One man in prison blues leans forward and intones in Cadogan's ear: "It's like playing Russian roulette with a loaded gun."

Discussion leader Mona Velas­quez, a counselor with the Amity Foundation, a rehabilitation group, reinforces the dangers. Cadogan has a common problem, says Ms. Velasquez. "What do you do when you run into that old friend that's using?" She runs through a list of "social skills" outlined on a white board. The last point: "Make a plan."


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