An innovative inmate program is gearing up to begin this month in Stanislaus County designed to transition people from serving time in jail to becoming productive citizens once released.
Named the Re-Entry and Enhanced Alternatives to Custody Training Center (REACT), the facility in west Ceres will offer programs to those desiring to break addictions to drugs or alcohol, receive mental health care and learn new skills that will help them find honest work outside of jail. The county's goal is to reduce the cycle of recidivism by preparing inmates for release and offering rehabilitation.
On Monday afternoon Congressman Jeff Denham dropped by the center to deliver two boxes of surplus books from the Library of Congress. He helped to shelf them on a book cart in one of the four 48-bed housing pods that will be home to inmates on May 21.
Denham said he feels the center will be successful in lowering crime in the county.
"I think part of the thing that's different about this program is that there's so much of a focus on rehabilitation and getting folks back into the community that can get a job and don't end up back on the streets," said Denham. "We've got a big homeless situation here. We've got to get people back integrated in and wanting to make a difference in our society."
Located near the Stanislaus County Public Safety Center in west Ceres, the REACT facility has a total of 288 inmate beds. The new REACT Center allowed Stanislaus County to close its antiquated downtown jail in downtown Modesto, with the exception of some holding space for inmates attending court.
"We'll see if focus on prevention actually works," said Sheriff Christianson, "but you're not actually going to know for years. You've not going to know because you have to break those cycles of addiction and violence. You have to find people who are willing to say ‘I want to make a change' and then accept the opportunities we present them because I don't get to affect free will. I can't make you participate in programs."
Each unit has classroom space as well as substance abuse treatment space.
After shelving the books on the cart, Sheriff Christianson explained that each of the units in the REACT Center is designed to offer more freedom of movement, access to classrooms and medical services.
"They're dormitory style housing units as opposed to lockdown cells so there's a lot of incentive to get to this point," said Christianson.
The center will primarily be used by sentenced inmates, not those awaiting trial.
"If you're sentenced and really want to make a difference in your life, you want to make that change, you want to leave behind a lifestyle of destructive choices and take advantage of what we offer, you can program all the way into here. And this facility will then get you ready to get back into the community."
Follow up care is offered at the Day Reporting Center used by the Probation Department for check-ins, substance abuse counseling and life skills and job training.
REACT program inmates will have access to video visitation stations that allow Skype style communication with outside family.
REACT will be relying on community groups to help with transitions.
The sheriff said he was approached by a Riverbank business with a "heart for convicted felons" who wants to provide jobs for those inmates who successfully completed the program.
The center also has a partner with the Salvation Army which has committed 20 beds at the Berberian Homeless Shelter and Transitional Living Center in downtown Modesto for released inmates in the program with no place to live.
Sheriff Christianson said the program is one of the first in the state and there is little guidance.
"Some of this stuff we've never done before. Most of it we're just kind of making it as we go."
The REACT Center is attracting other law enforcement agencies which are using the Ceres center as a model. Fresno, King, San Mateo, Tuolumne and Mono counties have checked out the Stanislaus County center. Larry Wallace, senior advisor to U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, toured the facility recently and pledged to get her out. Christian said Denham has been a frequent visitor and continual supporter of law enforcement.
Denham praised Christianson for proactively dealing with change coming from Sacramento.
"There are too many counties that have sat back and said, ‘Let's wait and see what happens' and you have a sheriff here that's said, ‘this is the new law of the land, we're going to take advantage of it."
Laws passed in Sacramento combined with voter-approved propositions that decriminalize and go lighter on lower-level offenders have created a paradigm shift in law enforcement, said Christianson.
"Long gone are the days of tough on crime, Three Strikes, lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key. It's all been shifted to primarily let them all go and put them in a program. So you've seen a cultural shift in what the state Legislature wants to do, what the courts have done, even what the people have voted for in decriminalization and a greater emphasis on program and rehabilitative opportunities."
Christianson said he personally disagrees with aspects of that approach as he is a "firm believer in accountability and consequence." He said continually stripping out accountability and consequence silences the voices of victims.
"There's a balance between holding people accountable for criminal conduct and behavior and okay we're going to give you a chance to make a difference in your own life."
The REACT center is the final piece in a decades-long effort of the county to modernize and centralize the custodial facilities. The previously completed projects include the Sheriff's Detention Center, which has 480 maximum security beds and housing for 57 medical and mental health offenders and 15 hospital beds.
In 1986, a report on the custodial facilities in Stanislaus County found them to be antiquated and overcrowded and the Board of Supervisors began the process of centralizing and modernizing the facilities in west Ceres. The mission gathered momentum with AB 900 Phase II funds, also known as the Local Jail Construction Financing Program established by the State Public Works Board.
The total cost of these projects was around $180 million, with the bulk of funding coming from the state and the remainder coming from the county.
To build the REACT Center, the county applied for $40 million in state funding through the Adult Local Criminal Justice Facilities Construction Financing Program under Senate Bill 1022. Stanislaus County was originally denied funding but appealed that decision and was granted full funding of $40 million in 2014. The county-required match of $4.4 million - paid for by developer fees - brought the total project budget to $44.4 million.