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Probation officer Manuel Gonzalez, center, questions inmate Edmundo Ruvalcaba during an interview by members of the Probation Department of Santa Clara County during a pre-release interview at the San Quentin Correctional Facility in San Quentin, Calif. on Sept. 29, 2011. Probation officer Bill Bonsall listens at right.

Last time San Jose resident Ray Correa was released from a California prison, all he got was $200 in "gate money'' to tide him over and strict orders to report to his parole agent in 48 hours. This time, an eager team of law enforcement professionals showed up at San Quentin Prison to shower him with offers of a place to live, job training and even free medication.

It's not the kind of welcome home the 46-year-old coin-laundromat burglar with a history of methamphetamine use and psychiatric problems expected.

"I've never had this much support before,'' said Correa, with a gap-toothed smile, looking around the windowless room inside the waterfront fortress, where probation officers and a mental health worker recently interviewed him before his release from prison and his return to San Jose.

California's grand experiment to overhaul its criminal justice system is giving local communities the freedom to reinvent how they watch over nonviolent criminals who leave prison, and Santa Clara County is taking a unique and some say controversial approach. It's the only county in California sending teams to prisons throughout the state over the next nine months to personally interview 1,067 inmates returning home.

The daunting task comes as the state shifts responsibility for supervising certain newly released felons like Correa from state parole agents to county probation officers. It's all part of a systemic change designed to cut California's prison overcrowding and costs. Under state law, parolees must return to the county where they lived at the time of the crime.

Judging by the complications revealed in interviews with seven San Quentin inmates, even supporters of the innovative program acknowledge its success will require an enormous amount of hand-holding, tough love and luck to turn these ex-cons' lives around.

"You have to change the way they think,'' said county Supervisor George Shirakawa Jr., a strong advocate of re-entry programs for inmates, who sat in on some of the San Quentin interviews. "It's almost an impossible task. But I'm going to fight as hard as I can to keep our people out of jail and prison.''

NEW APPROACH

Santa Clara County is committed to proving realignment can reduce the state's "revolving door'' of justice, in which 67.5 percent of the people released from prison are incarcerated again within three years -- among the highest recidivism rates in the nation. The county plans to use much of its $15.1 million in state funding to rehabilitate parolees rather than routinely putting them back behind bars over and over again at great public expense.

For example, because many inmates are drug addicts -- and kicking drugs often involves relapses -- Probation Chief Sheila Mitchell says the county no longer intends to automatically follow the traditional practice of re-incarcerating every parolee for one or two dirty drug tests.

Instead, with certain individuals, the county will try alternatives such as cognititive behavioral counseling and residential treatment. County officials are trying to persuade the Jericho Project, a highly successful state-licensed, year-long substance abuse program for men based in San Mateo County, to open a local branch.

That less punitive approach is scoffed at by critics of the state's realignment of the criminal justice system, particularly in Los Angeles and other counties with overcrowded jails. They warn that the state's plan, which also unloads responsibility for housing thousands of nonviolent felons on local communities, will jeopardize public safety by putting more low-level offenders on the streets sooner than they would be under the current rules. For instance, they don't like that parolees who comply with the conditions of their release can earn their freedom sooner -- in six months, rather than a year.

Another concern is that although parolees' most recent offense must be nonviolent to qualify for county supervision, many have violent criminal histories that could make it tougher to rehabilitate them -- including Correa, who has a domestic violence conviction on his record.

But Santa Clara County's approach isn't all touchy-feely. The parolees will be supervised by armed county probation officers, among the few in the department authorized to carry guns. And the ex-cons must abide by a long list of rules or be jailed for up to six months at a stretch and see their supervision extended for up to three years.

Correa said he was sent back to prison this time for violating parole by failing to make regular payments on the $514 in restitution he and three friends owe the Cupertino laundromat and for a "dirty bottle,'' meaning a failed drug test. But he told the county team at San Quentin that he doesn't see why he has to enroll in a drug treatment program since he went through one already.

The interview gave him an opportunity to vent about that and other issues -- supporting studies that show such pre-release meetings raise the chances ex-convicts will show up for their first crucial meeting with their parole officer and comply with the rules.

Other counties, including Alameda, asked prison administrators to move parolees into nearby prisons so probation officers could meet with the inmates before they got out. But the state said moving so many inmates around would be too difficult to arrange.

"There's no doubt what Santa Clara County is doing is a good idea,'' said Todd Gillam, vice president of the Parole Agent Association of California. "The more involvement, the better.''

A widely recognized expert on prisons was even more enthusiastic.

"A-plus to the county for an extremely thoughtful, absolutely essential idea,'' said Craig Haney, a professor of the psychology of the law at UC-Santa Cruz.

FRANK INTERVIEWS

Despite the admirable intentions of the program, no one is blind to the difficulties. The temptations of criminal life may prove stronger than anything the county can offer -- especially for parolees whose close family members also make a living from crime. Add financial temptations into the worst economy since the Great Depression, and rehabilitating them could be an even bigger challenge.

One San Quentin inmate with a goatee and black ponytail who was interviewed by the team told them he was tired of stealing cars -- at $800-900 a pop -- and plans to work for his father-in-law's San Jose roofing business -- for $100 a day.

But he also spoke frankly about how difficult it will be to comply with the rule against associating with other criminals. His sister is on probation and his brother is on parole for grand theft.

"You guys are in the same business,'' probation officer Manuel Gonzalez remarked, drawing a smirk from the inmate.

Mental health problems coupled with drug addiction may prove to be the biggest obstacle.

Correa, for instance, said he was functioning well in prison on three drugs commonly prescribed for depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. But he decided to ween himself off them a few weeks before his release because he was feeling better -- and couldn't afford them on the outside.

"I don't feel as happy now,'' he admitted during the interview. The county offered to hook him up with free meds -- even drive him to a special pharmacy and help him fill out the paperwork -- but there's no guarantee he will follow through.

Inmate Edmundo Ruvalcaba, a tall, bald, broad-shouldered man with a defeated air, originally landed in prison for beating his former girlfriend. Taking anti-depressants in prison helped him realize the stranglehold that using and selling meth had on his life.

"It's like that drug takes ahold of you and makes you do things you wouldn't otherwise do. You lose your mind, you lose everything, and end up in places like this,'' Ruvalcaba said. "I remember being happy before the drugs and I look forward to it again.''

But the 36-year-old balked initially at one of the key conditions of his release -- the requirement to attend a drug treatment program.

"All you do is run into more drug addicts faking it there,'' he said. "I need something to keep me busy.''

Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482.