When Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law last year drastically changing the rules for oversight of low-level felons upon their release from prison, plans for handling the influx of female parolees fell between the cracks, say many experts.
"I've been screaming for a year, 'What are we going to do with the women?' " said Edwina Perez-Santiago, who on Thursday opened one of the few services in the state for assisting "AB 109 women." Her chief focus for the project, based in Richmond, is finding housing, a challenge heightened by laws barring felons from renting low-cost federal housing.
In April, Brown signed AB 109, a "realignment" bill that transfers oversight of felons exiting state prison for nonviolent, nonserious and nonsex crimes from the state to county probation departments. And effective Oct. 1, newly convicted "non, non, non" felons would be jailed in county facilities instead of state prison, part of an effort to reduce bulging populations at the prisons.
In exchange, the state pays counties for their increased load of prisoners and parolees.
Counties statewide have been scrambling to prepare for the influx, but the focus has been on aiding male felons in transitioning to stable lives with jobs and housing, or on jail accommodations for low-level felons convicted after Oct. 1.
"We're all focused on the men," Perez-Santiago said. "What about their mothers, aunties and everyone else?"
Women have unique needs, she explained, such as arranging child care or healing from the emotional scars of domestic abuse.
Advocates for female prisoners agree.
"Women are going to be impacted, proportionally, much more than men," said Karen Shain, policy director with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children in San Francisco. She explained that more than half of the 7,500 women in state prison were convicted of low-level offenses. Typical crimes included drug use, credit card fraud or larceny.
By June, some 500 women released from state prison will fall under county oversight because of the new law, Shain said. "It's a problem every county is going to be facing," she said.
Counties have leeway in how they manage the new parolees, such as GPS monitoring, stays in drug-rehabilitation centers, house arrest or supervised release.
Perez-Santiago's new service, the "Re-entry-Reunite Project," is unique, said Terrance Cheung, chief of staff for Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, of Richmond.
Services for AB 109 women "are not as developed," he said. "She's the one solely focused on that.
"She's a credible, formidable woman," Cheung added. "She knows her stuff."
Perez-Santiago said several women fresh out of state prison in Southern and Central California for low-level offenses want to relocate to Richmond, but she doesn't have housing for them because of rents the women can't afford and the restrictions on federal housing for felons.
Funding for the project now comes from private donations and Perez-Santiago's own contributions, although she's seeking county, state and federal funding for it.
A few of these women are in their 50s, she noted, and have been in prison since their teens. Once she does find housing, the nonprofit Reach Fellowship International, which she heads, will provide them with jobs, such as landscaping work. The organization also offers GED, ESL and other classes.
"But as long as I can't get a roof over their head, it's a little challenging," Perez-Santiago said.
Contact Suzanne Bohan at 510-262-2789. Follow her at Twitter.com/suzbohan.
What: Re-entry-Reunite Project
Address: 1662 Fred Jackson Way, Richmond
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Thursday
(The project doesn't have a website.)