Freeing prisoners is only half the battle

By Erika D. Smith 

UPDATED FEBRUARY 02, 2016 1:21 AM 

The Sacramento Bee

​There’s a wall at one of Sacramento County Probation Department’s reporting centers that’s cluttered with photos. Most are of officers pointing to unbelievably huge stashes of drugs and guns that they recovered. But there’s another a photo, a sad one, that seems almost out of place. A little girl, about 9 months old, is clinging to the arms of a probation officer and looking expectantly through an open front door. Workers from Child Protective Services were on their way to take her into protective custody. Her father, an abuser of heroin and meth, was about to go back to jail. That photo was taken about a year ago. Today, the little girl is back with her father, who is clean and working hard to stay that way.

He’s one of thousands of men and women in Sacramento County who are trying to make the best of their second – or sixth – chance to stay out of trouble and lead productive lives. Some make it work. Some don’t. Some have so many mental, emotional and learning issues that they just can’t. Regardless, both as a state and as a nation, we’re all about multiple chances these days. 

The latest effort to reverse decades of tough-on-crime policies includes a ballot initiative from Gov. Jerry Brown that would make it easier for nonviolent offenders to get parole. It also would allow prosecutors instead of judges to decide when teenagers are tried as adults. These are common-sense proposals because, by now, we know throwing more and more people behind bars and forgetting about them does no one any good, particularly when it comes to children. But far less known is under what circumstances second chances actually work. 

What’s the trick to real rehabilitation? What’s the best way to get people to change their ways? Few people know better than probation officers how to answer these complicated questions. Day in and day out, these men and women relentlessly keep track of people who have been released from prison or jail. Home visits can range from dodging vicious dogs in trailer parks and ratty apartment complexes to knocking on doors in surprisingly well-appointed neighborhoods. Probation officers know when someone is doing well. They know when someone is about to fall off the wagon. They know that having a job is essential, but is almost impossible to get with a record. They know that Xanax goes for $5 to $10 a pill on the street. And they know that codeine cough syrup goes for $50 an ounce – only if it’s cherry flavored, though. 

It’s a job that’s part cop, part social worker, part resource officer and part baby sitter. In the end, the two probation officers who took me on a ride-along last month say that whether people seize an opportunity to change their lives often boils down to willpower, supportive friends and relatives, and the most coincidental of circumstances of life. Like the father of the little girl in that photo. In and out of jail and on and off drugs for years, it was having to unexpectedly take care of his then-8-month-old daughter that drove him back to meth and then heroin. 

He was stressed, living in an apartment complex infested with drugs. Before long, probation found out he was using. They searched his place and found drug paraphernalia. Back to jail he went. Once out, he went straight into a treatment program and into another program through CPS to get his daughter back. So far, so good. The afternoon I met and agreed not to identify him, he was gushing about his progress to me and probation officers Martha Rodriguez and Francisco Stinnetti. Sitting on the couch, his sister was finishing his sentences, excited and proudly pointing at the little girl who was once taken by CPS, but is now laughing and smiling and walking. 

His story was remarkably similar to that of another man I met the same day at the Volunteers of America shelter. This man said he had been locked up for years and was homeless and on drugs when his 11-year-old son stopped talking to him, and he summoned the will to get clean. “I needed it, but he,” he said of his son, “gave me the reason.” Second chances are great, but true rehabilitation is a lot more complicated than a ballot initiative. 

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185,, @Erika_D_Smith 

This story was originally published January 31, 2016 4:01 PM.