Archive » May 10, 2012
County faces realignment challenges
By Jeremy Foster, Staff Writer
The strain of the Public Safety Realignment Act, which has shifted low-level offenders from state prisons to local jails, is worse than anyone had anticipated, the county Board of Supervisors heard on Tuesday.
Probation Department Chief Beverly Taylor and other public safety department heads presented an update on the realignment’s impact on the county’s justice system, noting that, among other things, the county has absorbed 24% more state prisoners than it had anticipated.
On Oct. 1, inmates who have been sentenced to a term of imprisonment for non-violent, non-serious, non-sex crimes – with sentences of three years or less – were instead directed to serve their time in the local county jails. These people have committed crimes including sales of narcotics, battery, forgery, vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and grand theft.
The sentencing of inmates to local jails came under Assembly Bill 109, or The Public Safety Realignment Act, which was signed into law on April 4. The bill came after an order by the U.S. Supreme Court required California to reduce its prison population, because overcrowding had left inmates with inadequate health care. Before the legislation, a sentenced inmate spent a maximum of one year in county jail, but sentence times are increasing as more offenders are kept in local custody. In March, one man was sentenced to 23 years in county jail.
On Tuesday, Sheriff Bill Brown said the collaborative effort of public safety departments has delivered “some very encouraging results.” But the jail population today, he noted, amounts to 938 inmates for a jail rated to hold 788.
“Ideally, we should be operating at 85% of capacity so we can move the right people around throughout the jail, and have the right population blend in the various areas of the jail to limit assaults, to limit fights and to limit the problem of getting people the proper care,” Brown told the board.
Realignment largely solves the state’s prison overpopulation woes, but Brown and others say it merely spreads the pain across California’s local jurisdictions. Last year, the Sheriff’s Department released 220 inmates early; already this year, the department has had to release 266. The Santa Maria booking jail is not an option because it’s understaffed and has only 20 beds that are not intended for long-term use.
Last year saw fewer early releases than anticipated, Brown noted, because of better policing methods, re-entry programs and lower recidivism rates. But “we’re still pushing people out of our jail before they complete their sentences,” he said. Brown said his department is struggling to fill 23 vacancies for custody deputy positions because of the lengthy process of recruiting, interviewing and academy training, which runs 10 weeks. The department recently received 500 applications and to date has hired only 13 people. “The reality is that we don’t have someone who’s up and running and able to function on their own as a custody deputy for upward of six months to a year,” Brown lamented. “It’s a daunting task.”
County Probation is also feeling the strain, because more inmates who are released on parole are reporting to county probation officers. The department’s post-release supervision applies only to those whose convictions were for non-serious, non-violent, non-sex-related offenses. Taylor noted that sentencing was 20% lower than expected for this population, partly because of “split sentences,” where inmates spend some time in custody and the rest under mandatory supervision.
Taylor said she and other public safety department officials have advocated for more split sentences. ”We are seeing a change with the courts,” she said. “It’ll take a while for all parties to become familiar with this new tool.” She also said she anticipates $7.6 million from the state, a doubling of last year’s funding.
The department is also targeting inmates who may be eligible for electronic monitoring, where prisoners wear electronic ankle bracelets in lieu of being incarcerated. The county has seen a 70% increase from last year for this type of monitoring.
Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf said realignment has caused the county to focus on a new smart-on-crime paradigm. She said money should be set aside for more treatment for substance abusers, the homeless and the mentally ill.
This sentiment was echoed by Deputy Public Defender Deedrea Edgar during public comment.
“We don’t lock up people that suffer from Alzheimer’s, or the elderly who drive their cars without licenses or act out odd behaviors in public,” she said. “We never say to the families that call to help them, ‘We’ll have them arrested and the courts will deal with them.’ Yet we do that every day with mental ill and people with drug issues.”
Edgar said wraparound services involving the community and several county agencies must help people in a civil way, through civil law and procedure.
Taylor said the first few months under realignment has been tough going, but she said with adequate time, attention and resources, a better plan will take shape to track and manage inmates and work with community groups to re-integrate offenders into the community.