When a tourist found a suitcase containing the body of Pearla Louis on the San Francisco waterfront in May, it grabbed national attention because of its mystery and cruelty. Shortly thereafter, police would announce they arrested Lee Bell on suspicion of murder.
Bell, 47, was well-known to the criminal justice system, being on probation for grand theft and having a laundry list of previous convictions.
He was but one failure of the probation system and far from its last, yet his capture was a success because it was his probation officer who caught him.
The San Francisco Adult Probation Department, the caretaker of The City’s criminals, faces a constant uphill battle. It has only 36 officers to handle 7,273 cases, 85 percent of which are felonies.
The American Probation and Parole Association recommends that high-risk cases — people convicted of beating their spouses, rape, gang membership and other crimes — be assigned at a rate of 20 cases per officer. The City’s ratio of high-risk cases, however, is 77-to-1, leaving probation officers to supervise four times as many high-risk probationers than what’s recommended by national standards.
In San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood recently, probation officers Gabe Calvillo and Christy Henzi set out to check on the dozen or so people they visit every day.
The duo monitors high-risk sex offenders, including Curtis Franklin, 73, who has been convicted of rape three times, Calvillo said. Franklin is required to register with the state. When he failed to do so, it triggered a three-year probationary period.
Wearing a crusty jacket and thick eyeglasses, Franklin hardly looks menacing as he sits in a wheelchair awaiting a hip replacement. “When are we going to get you a place to live?” Calvillo asks Franklin, who is homeless. Franklin merely shrugs.
Wendy Still, San Francisco’s new chief probation officer, said even though her office is chronically underfunded, probation departments have an advantage. With state and local law enforcement agencies facing record deficits and a move afoot to release more inmates back into society, probation offers an alternative to incarceration for a fraction of the price.
In California, about 40 percent of new inmates in state prison every year are people who committed a crime while on probation. It costs $140 a day to house an inmate in a county jail, according to Still, while one person on probation costs $4.85 a day.
State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, co-authored legislation in 2009 that calls for the monitoring of local probation departments. Counties that send fewer probationers to state prison will receive part of the savings that comes from less-crowded prisons.
“Traditionally for probation officers and those on probation, there’s an expectation that they’ll fail,” Leno said. “We have to retrain people that the goal is to succeed.”
Still said she hopes new tactics, such as more closely monitoring young probationers as they transition into the adult departments, will reduce the number who fail and must return to prison. Calvillo said that in the past, his job was 70 percent law enforcement and 30 percent social work. With Still in charge, however, he expects that ratio to flip.
Jessica Flintoft, who’s part of The City’s Reentry Council, has been working for five years to help former criminals transition into a normal life.
“I definitely believe that probation can be the answer,” Flintoft said. “It’s a tough job because they’ve been underfunded for so long, but they’re shifting to a rehabilitation focus and that vision should bring success.”
In the Louis homicide case, Bell, acting like a model probationer, entered the Probation Department’s waiting room at the Hall of Justice on May 21 and took a seat, waiting for his check-in. Calvillo glanced out into the waiting room and recognized Bell from a police bulletin that was just posted. Calvillo handcuffed the man and took him into custody.
Probation departments across the state are now more accountable under a state law that rewards local departments for doing well.
Legislation co-written by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, tracks the number of inmates sent to state prison from local probation departments. If a department can lower its recidivism level, the savings realized by sending fewer inmates to prison goes back to the local agency.
Counties across the state were given a head start on the results-based program, also known as evidence-based probation, with $40 million in stimulus funding from the federal government. The first report for San Francisco, which received $500,000, is expected in August.
“We have a prison overcrowding problem with the threat of federal courts releasing 40,000 inmates in a year,” Leno said. “One way to lower the inmate population is to address those that make up 40 percent, or 20,000, of each year’s new inmates, those who fail their probation.”