So when Still was recruited to San Francisco two years ago, she seized the chance to stop offenders from entering prison in the first place. She lobbied the city supervisors for money to hire more agents and decrease case loads. "Probationers" became "clients," and the staff was trained in risk-assessment and referral so that they could guide those clients to community services for help getting GEDs, housing, drug rehab, clothes, and money.

Already Still has seen dramatic results. Under her watch, the rate of probationers going to prison dropped 22 percent from 2009 to 2010, which qualified the department for $834,000 in state funds through S.B. 678. The changes are also cheaper: Recidivism experts say housing someone in prison for a year costs $50,000. The most expensive re-entry programs cost around $15,000.

Because of the reforms, Still says her department was prepared for realignment. Officers visit prisoners at least 60 days before their release to assess needs and design a plan of re-entry services. On the day the inmates are finally released, probation agents pick up high-risk, mentally ill, or handicapped prisoners at the prison's gate.

Henzi reviews the Tenderloin hotel room of Kheali Maua, a 27-year-old recently released inmate.
Jamie Soja
Henzi reviews the Tenderloin hotel room of Kheali Maua, a 27-year-old recently released inmate.
Henzi and probation supervisor Gabe Calvillo say that finding a crack pipe likely will not make them send someone to county jail.
Jamie Soja
Henzi and probation supervisor Gabe Calvillo say that finding a crack pipe likely will not make them send someone to county jail.

Then the real work starts.

On a Thursday morning in December, Bracy slumps into a chair next to the desk of Sarah Wanser, a baby-faced probation officer who seems more like a friendly school counselor than a law enforcement agent with handcuffs at the ready. Posters of waterfalls and lighthouses with inspirational sayings are intended to cheer up the otherwise bare-bones, windowless Hall of Justice office.

It has been two weeks since Wanser gave Bracy a chance to return to his drug-free housing and rehab classes at Walden House. Today Bracy is clad in the Red Sox jacket he bought with his gate money from prison, with blood on his face from where he says he nicked himself shaving. He seems tired and more pessimistic than the previous week, when he had flashed a thumbs-up at the end of the appointment.

According to U.C. Berkeley's Barry Krisberg, a lion in the field of recidivism who trains probation officers, "a person to talk to" numbers among the three key ingredients to a successful rehabilitation.

Bracy will talk. But that doesn't mean he'll tell the whole truth.

Wanser launches into "motivational interviewing," a method first used in the treatment of alcoholics. Open-ended questions are meant to lead clients to define their goals and reasons they want to change.

Wanser asks Bracy how it's going with his housemates, and whether he has applied for welfare yet.

"I think I go Monday," he says.

"So it sounds like you're being really proactive in getting things accomplished. That's great." (Her training: compliment clients on making progress on short-term goals, and repeat what he says he's doing to meet his goals.)

Wanser asks if he has been thinking about the question she had asked at his last visit: what he wants his relationship with his kids to be like in a year, when he's sober. (That's the "miracle question," to get people to envision what their ideal life would look like. The previous week, he had paused and said, "I can't even answer that.")

"I know I don't want my kids to be nothin' like me," he says.

"That's an important statement. So what are the things you're going to want to teach or role model for them so they won't go down the path that you did?" (Plant the seed for a client to start thinking about a solution.)

"I have to start being available," he answers.

"That will come. Like you say, the most important thing right now is yourself and your health." She suggests he think about role-playing a conversation he'll have with his kids someday to explain his absences, and ends on a positive note. "You are a strong person — that's something I wanted to say as well."

"Thank you," Bracy murmurs.

Wanser leads him out to the hallway, and talks to him about going to a city service that can hook him up with more clothes.

"Aren't you tired of seeing me in this jacket?" Bracy jokes.

"Well, I don't like the Red Sox," she answers, and Bracy laughs. "If it was the Niners, there would be no problem."

Bracy says he thinks Wanser is "cool." "They seem like they want to help more than send a motherfucker away. With probation you can talk about options, instead of one option: jail."

But when it comes to drug rehab, Bracy is undecided about what type of counseling reaches him better. He sometimes thinks old-school programs that use confrontational tactics work better than touchy-feely ones. "I can't hear kind, soft, and gentle. I need to really hear you — like, 'Sit your punk ass down, shut the fuck up, and do the fuck what we're gonna say.'" In softer-type group sessions, he's learned how to put drug usage in code: "I say, 'I'm taking it one day at a time.' It's hard to be abstinent after a relapse."

Indeed, there had been some glaring omissions in the update he provided Wanser. He called her a couple hours after the appointment to tell her the real reason he seemed so tired and disheveled: He'd tested dirty for meth in a random drug test at his drug-free transitional housing provided by the city. He'd been kicked out that very morning, and was currently homeless.

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