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Keeping Cons Out Of Prison

Publication Date: 
August 27, 2009
Santa Barbara Independent
Nick Welsh

Professor Joan Petersilia, an expert in parole reform and prisoner reintegration, discusses results of the Santa Barbara Re-Entry Project with The Santa Barbara Independent:

Talk about a collision of cruel irony and bad timing. Just as the California Legislature is debating the early “release” of 27,000 prisoners from lockups throughout the state, a dramatically successful experiment in Santa Barbara County designed to keep such prisoners from re-offending has lost its state funding. As a result, this pilot program — known as the Santa Barbara County Re-Entry Project — has just enough in back-up funds to limp along through the end of the year. In the meantime, it will serve only half its normal caseload.

“It’s a huge disappointment,” lamented Joan Petersilia, an academic superstar who’s spent the past 30 years studying what happens to prisoners after they’re convicted. “Just as Santa Barbara was showing impressive results, money from the state started drying up.”


According to Petersilia — a part-time Santa Barbara resident who spent the past five years advising Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on prison reform — the very best programs are lucky to achieve reductions of 30 percent. Petersilia, who now teaches at Stanford Law School, played a major role designing Santa Barbara’s program. “We didn’t want to re-invent the wheel,” she said. “We just wanted to improve it.”


At issue is whether Santa Barbara’s success can be replicated elsewhere. Petersilia is not so sure. What’s made Santa Barbara so successful, aside from Farugie’s leadership, is the active personal support by a wide array of high-ranking law enforcement officials — most notably Sheriff Bill Brown — as well an unusually rich and diverse network of social service agencies both public and private nonprofit. And not every community is endowed with retired corporate executives like Rick Roney, who concluded several years ago after a visit to San Quentin, “The whole system is crazy and I might be able to help make a change.” Nor are most towns endowed with the high-powered expertise of a Joan Petersilia, whose involvement brings instant credibility.

“I’m not saying it can’t be duplicated,” said Petersilia. “But it will be difficult.” By contrast, Roney and Farugie are more optimistic. “It’s not rocket science,” said Roney. “Our experience shows it’s possible to get results. We did it.”