Valley parolee Gordon Roland got gift cards for Best Buy and Sports Authority after graduating from a five-day-a-week substance abuse program.
His gift card donor? The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which has a new incentive program designed to reward parolees when they reach benchmarks in programs to re-integrate them into society -- and keep them out of jail.
The taxpayer-funded gift cards range from $40 to $150 and are in the $9 billion state corrections budget.
Fresno-area parolees will soon participate in the program, which is already under way in Stockton, where Roland attends classes.
Advocates say the prison population must be reduced and incentives, such as gift cards, are a proven way to do it.
Critics contend that having the opportunity to participate in programs that teach life skills should be reward enough.
California isn't breaking new ground. Incentives have been provided to parolees in other states, and even by Fresno County. But research is divided on whether the programs work.
Ondre Henry, president of the 1,600-member Parole Agents' Association of California, said his fellow officers have wide-ranging views about the new program. The association, he said, has taken no position.
"I'm a taxpayer, and when I look at it, it kind of frustrates me, but when I see it from the department's standpoint it coincides with what they are trying to do," Henry said. "They are doing this to try and keep people involved in the program."
Valley's high recidivism
In the Central Valley, where about three out of every four inmates goes back to jail or prison, corrections officials say incentives are worth a try. Fresno, Stockton and Modesto have recidivism rates between 71.3% and 75.8%, the highest in the state. The state average is 61%.
Those high recidivism rates put more pressure on overcrowded prisons and jails. A federal three-judge panel has ordered the state to reduce its prison population to 137.5% of designed capacity, or 112,164 inmates. In May 2011, state prisons held 147,000 inmates. Today, it's 117,497, about 144% of capacity.
The panel's ruling forced the state into a prison realignment program, which shipped thousands of inmates to county jails. Fresno County's jail also is under a federal court order to reduce overcrowding, leading to a "catch-and-release" of nonviolent offenders.
Officials, desperate for new solutions to recidivism and overcrowding, say that rewarding parolees for reaching goals -- graduating from a substance abuse program or acquiring a General Education Development diploma -- instead of punishing them for failures might prove successful.
Robert Ambroselli, regional parole administrator for the district covering Fresno and 32 other counties, said the reward system is already making an impression on parolees in the Stockton region.
The state is buying thousands of gift cards for sandwich shops, restaurants, department stores and movies, and he thinks it's money well spent.
The key is to get parolees to show up and commit to their programs, Ambroselli said.
Parolees' failure to complete programs and reoffending can lead to extended jail stays, which is far more costly than giving them gift cards, he said.
A one-year stay for an inmate in Fresno County Jail costs taxpayers $35,000.
"We can force people into programs, but at some point we have to think innovatively to get people to go through at a minimal cost," he said.
And there's an added bonus to the incentives program, Ambroselli said: The local economy benefits when gift cards are purchased.
At the conclusion of some parolee classes, there are periodic surprise raffles to keep those attending interested in completing a program and qualifying for other gift cards.
Parolees are paying attention, Ambroselli said.
"We've seen that as soon as we start calling out numbers, there's silence," he said.
One parolee got a Subway gift card and was so enthusiastic he did "a $5 foot-long dance."
Getting gift cards for restaurants or movie tickets gives parolees a rare opportunity to treat their families, Ambroselli said, and they are proud to share a reward for something they earned.
But most of the gift cards are for items parolees need. Ambroselli says he's not worried that parolees will try to cash out their cards.
"Food tends to be an easy way to motivate folks," he said. "I would be shocked to see if someone takes a $10 Subway card and sells it for $2."
Gift cards to Home Depot help parolees buy tools for work, he said.
Kim Jones, Roland's instructor in Stockton, said his students are grateful for gasoline cards.
"That's a big deal," Jones said.
When cards are handed out to students who reach certain benchmarks, it develops camaraderie. He also said there's less tension in the classroom.
"The week before last I distributed gift cards," Jones said. "Four guys got the gift cards and the other guys who didn't were happy for them."
Over the next several months, corrections officials will evaluate the program to see if it's working.
But Roland, who was released from state prison in November after serving 16 months for petty theft, said the incentives wouldn't have been necessary in his case. He said he's determined to earn a high school equivalency diploma, get a job, maybe go to college and, most of all, stay out of trouble.
"I am doing something every day, I am coming here and I'm learning," said Roland, who is enrolled in the computer literacy learning center.
About 40 jail inmates who are behind bars through the realignment program, have four to six months left in their sentences and are judged a high or moderate risk to re-offend, are participating in a Fresno County Jail incentive program.
Rewards are modest.
The "Transition from Jail to Community" handbook says that the highest phase of incentives gets inmates higher-quality coffee and a "contact visit" with relatives.
Lower-level incentives include use of colored pencils, drawing paper, board games, paint and an extra visit. There also are penalties when rules are violated.
The program is a way to improve inmates' behavior and let others know they could earn rewards, said Sheriff Margaret Mims.
She says the state's gift card program is an intriguing idea.
"I would commend them for thinking outside the box," she said. "I hope it works, but I am not sure it will."
In Judge Hilary Chittick's behavioral health court, defendants who regularly attend court dates qualify for a raffle. The $5 gift cards, which are paid for through a grant, are raffled off to those who attend court consistently, test substance-free and meet all other program rules. Six months of clean testing and completion of phases will earn defendants $10 gift cards, she said.
"If you can get an addict to stop using and lead a productive life, the $5 you paid for that gift card more than pays for itself," she said.
Fresno County has used smaller increments of gift cards -- mostly $5 -- in some of its probation programs, said Rick Chavez, chief probation officer. The county's costs average $800 yearly and are covered by grants and state funding, he said.
He said they also use movie cards and bus tokens.
"We've seen some positive results," Chavez said. "But we use it on a very limited basis."
Freedom is a reward
But critics say parolees shouldn't be rewarded just for following the rules.
"If they think a gift card will change the heart of a parolee, that's ludicrous," Assembly Member Jim Patterson, R-Fresno said.
Parolees must show that their behavior and attitude have changed, and they can maintain their freedom if they follow the rules.
"The reward for good behavior for a parolee is that they don't go back to jail," said Patterson, who sits on the state Assembly's budget committee but was unaware of the gift card program until contacted by a Bee reporter. "That should be an absolute and significant reward in and of itself. This almost sounds like an allowance for good behavior."
The president of a law enforcement and victims' advocacy organization also is critical of the program.
"In my experience, the ones who are interested in behaving would probably obey conditions of parole without incentives," said Michael Rushford, president of the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.
Facing consequences for their actions is all that parolees understand, he said.
"I'm sure it's a joke for those guys," said Rushford. "It's a nice idea, but kind of like putting a Band-Aid on a really big wound."
Research on the use of parolee incentives have mixed findings.
Wyoming has used incentives for years in its parole and probation system. A 2011 study by a University of Wyoming professor and other experts across the United States found a 63% success rate among 283 Wyoming offenders who earned incentives.
"Use of these combined behavioral interventions, both sanctions and incentives, led to higher success rates among the sample than in models in which sanctions and incentives were applied independently," said the study led by the University of Wyoming.
Probationers and parolees were most successful when they got four times as many incentives as sanctions. Getting even more incentives did not improve success rates significantly, said the study's lead author, Eric Wodahl, who evaluated the Wyoming Department of Corrections' program from 2000 to 2003.
The program, which began in the late 1990s, didn't employ gift cards. Rewards include reducing time under supervision and discounts -- about $20 to $30 per month -- in the programs' cost, he said.
"For some of them, being told 'good job' was meaningful, for others, it's money," Wodahl said.
Three studies conducted at UCLA had different outcomes.
Michael Prendergast, director of the Criminal Justice Research Group at UCLA's Integrated Substance Abuse Programs, said incentives were not proven effective in their studies, but he does not oppose them.
Two studies of drug court programs showed that incentives did not have "a statistically significant" impact on stemming drug use.
Another study offered prison inmates extra credit toward commissary items but found no behavior changes.
"We didn't find positive results and I wish I could come up with a reason," he said. "We did three randomized studies with different populations ... I would just urge some caution for people in doing this."
Prendergast recommends the state conduct "small pilot studies to get it up and running. That way you can see if it works, work out any problems and then roll it out."
But Emma Hughes, a Fresno State associate professor in criminology, said Fresno parole officials have nothing to lose by using incentives since the area has one of the state's highest re-offending rates.
"There is a huge problem with parolees going back to jail," she said. "If these ideas contribute to keeping us safer and ultimately paying less in taxes, then it is in our best interest."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6166, email@example.com or @beebenjamin on Twitter.