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Private Work-Furlough Centers: Jail of Future?

Times Staff Writer

Until this fall, Charles Swafford was in the liquor business at 43rd and National Avenue in Southeast San Diego. Now he’s in the corrections business 13 blocks to the west.

Like growing numbers of entrepreneurs nationwide--including a handful of others in the San Diego area--Swafford is convinced that there are profits to be reaped in assuming a portion of the jailer’s task.

As the year drew to a close, Swafford and a small staff were scrambling to complete the rehabilitation of a creaky old boarding house at 3046-3048 National Ave., the first of two adjacent, identical buildings that will be the headquarters of Center Court, a work-furlough center for convicted defendants from San Diego County courts.

The mustard buildings sit between small wooden houses on a street of businesses and old homes. In late December, the yard behind them was littered with junked water heaters and bathtubs. The upper-story windows of the east building, at 3050-3052 National Ave., still were scorched from a Nov. 25 fire that postponed the center’s opening by more than a month.

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Nothing about Center Court looks like a jail--or any other sort of government facility, for that matter. But Swafford said he has some things San Diego County’s government lacks--space and a staff to keep convicts under lock, key and guard, at no cost to the taxpayers.

“Once we prove ourselves, I think this is what the courts will be looking for,” he said of the center, where offenders placed on probation will pay $475 per month for two meals a day and housing they’ll be allowed to leave only to go to work. “This is what the system needs.”

With San Diego County’s burgeoning criminal population and overcrowded jails, Swafford may be right.

More and more often, judges are considering alternative sentences for criminals--dispositions between the extremes of squeezing crooks into packed jails or freeing them to a relatively unhindered life under the supervision of the county’s also-undermanned Probation Department.

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But there are only a handful of such options at the judges’ disposal in San Diego County, and the ones they find most attractive are severely oversubscribed.

There’s a three-month wait for one of the 49 beds in the House of Metamorphosis drug rehabilitation program in Southeast San Diego. The wait is four months at another drug program favored by the courts, CRASH’s 35-bed Golden Hill House.

“The attorneys are frustrated,” said Jessica Lewis, program director of CRASH--Community Resources and Self-Help. “I know the Probation Department and to some degree the Parole Department are frustrated. And the clients. And beyond that, the parents of the clients, who say, ‘Well, in four months they could be dead.’ ”

Judges are so enthusiastic about work-furlough--which deprives criminals of their freedom but allows them to keep their jobs, support their families and pay for their own incarceration--that the waiting list for a place in the county’s 94-bed work-furlough center is 200 men long, according to Probation Department Director Cecil Steppe.

Enter the entrepreneurs, who are setting up shop alongside better-established, nonprofit agencies to meet the criminal justice system’s most pressing needs.

Where less than a year ago there were no private, for-profit alternatives to the county’s work-furlough program, with the opening of Center Court there are two.

Swafford will be in direct competition with Western States Re-entry Corp., part of a growing network of for-profit corrections programs operated by Glen Cornist of San Diego.

Cornist, once a researcher for the War on Poverty-era Office of Economic Opportunity, says private enterprise can be a cost-effective backstop for an overburdened county corrections system.

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That system, he said, “is about to explode. We started Western States to relieve some of the pressure from the system.”

In the last third of 1985, more than 200 convicted criminals enrolled in Western States’ work-furlough program, according to Cornist. Most had been sentenced to county jail, but the sentences were suspended and the defendants placed on probation, under the condition that they complete an average three- to six-month stay at Western States.

They pay $500 a month to be locked in one of three nondescript buildings when they are not at work. On the job, their attendance is subject to spot checks by both the county Probation Department and Western States’ staff. If they miss work or check in late too often, or if a surprise urinalysis reveals that they have been using drugs, they can be reported to the court and their probations revoked.

“It costs the county taxpayers no money for them to participate,” Cornist said. A day in jail, by contrast, costs the county more than $30 per prisoner, according to the Sheriff’s Department.

Law enforcement experts differ on the best way to handle criminals, with some saying conventional jails don’t alter criminal behavior and cost more than the alternatives. Others say the alternatives don’t do any good.

“The fact is we’ve created all kinds of programs to help these people, and they haven’t worked,” said Ken O’Brien, a San Diego deputy police chief. “All these programs the do-gooders have established aren’t doing any good.”


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