State’s new realignment plan will let


By Tracey Kaplan –
tkaplan@mercurynews.com
Posted: 09/25/2011 01:30:01 AM PDT 
 

Santa Cruz County Jail staff
is preparing to work within the new reality.

The state’s new massive “realignment” plan — which begins Saturday —
amounts to a dramatic retreat from California’s costly, tough-on-crime,
lock-’em-up approach. No matter how slowly the new strategy unfolds, it will
ultimately put more low-level offenders on the streets sooner than they would be
under the current rules, either because they are enrolled in rehabilitation
programs outside the jail walls, or are serving shorter periods in jail or on
post-release supervision.

“It’s the biggest change in the criminal justice system in 35 years,” since
the state switched to imposing fixed-term sentences on most crimes, said Judge
Phil Pennypacker, who presides over the criminal division of Santa Clara County
Superior Court.

Still, the state has been quick to assure the public that switching low-risk
convicts from prison blues to county jail jumpsuits will not jeopardize public
safety. Killers, robbers and sex offenders like Philip Garrido, who kidnapped
11-year-old Jaycee Dugard and held her in Antioch for 18 years, will remain
under the state’s watch. No inmates will be released early from prison and bused
home.  Instead, the 58 counties will gradually begin housing and supervising nonviolent criminals and parole violators as they are  sentenced or released.

Despite such assurances, California’s plan — which comes after the U.S.
Supreme Court in May found the state’s overcrowded prisons constitute cruel and  unusual punishment — has touched off a fierce debate: Will changing how we  punish low-level criminals like meth users and shoplifters make California more  dangerous? Or might it actually make the state safer?

Jail time cut in half

With the startup of realignment just days away, judges, sheriffs, lawyers and
probation chiefs throughout California have been frantically meeting to figure
out the complex rules. Soon, nearly everyone in county jail will be eligible to
get out after serving half their sentence if they behave; currently, jail
inmates have to serve two-thirds. Parolees who comply with the conditions of
their release also can earn their freedom sooner — in six months, rather than a
year.

And sheriffs in some of the 32 counties with court-imposed caps on jail
populations or overcrowded jails are likely to release more inmates early.

While that’s not a problem for most Bay Area counties, the lack of jail beds
is particularly acute in parts of the Central Valley and Southern California,
especially Los Angeles County, which collectively released more than 68,000
sentenced inmates in 2009 before they were due to be freed.

In Santa Cruz County, the jail’s Chief Deputy Jim Hart said he expected about
120 “triple nons,” non-serious, non-sexual and non-violent offenders, and
parolees in the first 12 months starting in October. The County Jail’s three
facilities are at roughly 125 percent of capacity now, Hart said.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Phil Wowak said the shift will be big.

“It’s the largest change I’ve seen in the criminal justice system in my time
here, since 1982,” Wowak said.

However, Wowak and Hart said they wanted to dispel the myth that state prison
inmates will arrive in buses in October or that the jail would release violent
offenders. They said that’s not the case.

“I think there are a lot of misconceptions in law enforcement and in the
community in general. I just want to reassure people that we are not opening our
jail doors and we are not releasing violent offenders,” Hart said.

Monterey County Sheriff Scott Miller said the jail there is planning to
release more offenders on its own recognizance instead of bail to help ease
overcrowding at the jail, which is about 210 inmates above its design
capacity.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has already sent
Monterey County more than 40 “packets” for prisoners to be placed on what is now  called Post-Release Community Supervision, County Probation Chief Manuel Real  said.

However, the county is not obligated to accept them all.

“Around six have been returned because they were too serious,” he said. “If
we feel additional terms and conditions need to be added, the CDCR folks have
been good about that.”

Added to that group are another 25 or so “realigned” inmates per month who
will now stay in County Jail instead of going to prison, Sheriff Scott Miller
said.

Combined, these two groups of offenders have become known as the “triple
nons” because their crimes are considered non-serious, non-violent and
non-sexual.

“We looked back at historic records of folks who apply to this non-non-non
thing and figured it’s about 300 a year for us,” Miller said.

The situation has raised a tense question about whether California’s
declining crime rate will shoot up as the state essentially steers its limited
resources toward locking up serious offenders and encourages counties to
experiment on a grand scale with cheaper alternative programs for less-hardened  defendants like electronic monitoring, vocational training, and drug treatment.   Some have compared it to medical triage; lower-risk offenders will be “treated”  with experimental methods that have shown promise in states from Texas to  Hawaii.

“It’s the greatest opportunity California has had in decades to advance
criminal-justice reform,” said Alex Busansky, president of the Oakland-based
National Council on Crime and Delinquency. “The challenge is how to manage it so it’s a success. Without the resources and the training, crime could spike and
the political pendulum could swing back the other way.”

Surge in crime?

Law enforcement officials already are predicting a surge in property crimes
such as shoplifting, burglary and ID theft, particularly in communities that
have had to lay off cops. Sacramento County Sheriff Scott R. Jones went so far
as to dub the state’s plan to reduce the prison population by about 33,000
inmates primarily through realignment “asinine,” and the top brass of the
California Police Chiefs Association met with Gov. Jerry Brown earlier this
month to request money for new officers to fight the possible crime wave.

“I’d say to the community, Nail it down, chain it down, lock it down — be
ever vigilant,'” said Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson, who had to
release 2,601 inmates for lack of jail space in 2009, the latest year for which
figures are available.

Yet in a trend that confounds researchers, crime has continued to drop — and
is now at 1960s levels nationwide and California — despite the worst economic
crisis since the Great Depression. Some point to factors such as the end of the
crack cocaine epidemic and advent of strategic policing for the safer streets.
Proponents say California could be even safer as offenders respond to a
carrot-and-stick approach — treatment programs and intermediate punishments
like short-term “flash incarcerations” of up to 10 days, rather than longer
prison stints.

“I don’t think this will cause a public-safety disaster at all,” said Jeanne
Woodford, former San Quentin State Prison warden and acting head of the
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, who currently directs
the nonprofit Death Penalty Focus. “I think it will make California safer.”

How things will change

The new strategy could change lives for the better, some say, while others
contend the current system already provides plenty of second chances for this
group of offenders.

San Jose ex-con Glen Maxwell spent half of his adult life — 15 of the past
30 years — in prison for nonviolent drug crimes, at a cost of more than half a
million dollars to taxpayers. Under realignment, Maxwell, 49, might have been
put in a cheaper drug treatment program well before he became a perennial
inmate. There was no guarantee the program would have worked, but Maxwell said  all that prison does is harden people, the opposite of what is needed to
overcome addictions like his.

“In prison, it’s a survival thing,” he said. “You got your guard up to
problems inside, and inside your head.”

Realignment also might have made a difference in Brenda Valencia’s life. But
despite stints on probation, community service and in jail, she never really
started to wake up until a judge sent her to prison for two months this summer.

Her underlying offense — failing to pay speeding tickets and driving with a
suspended license — mushroomed into a major legal ordeal after she ignored
court orders and fled from police during a subsequent traffic stop.

Realignment supporters say what she really needed early on was a life skills
class and economic assistance. Recently, the 29-year-old single mother of two
boys relocated from San Jose to Santa Cruz after she secured federal housing
assistance in the oceanside county.

“Prison was a big eye-opener for me, but it’s the housing that really
helped,” she said.

Hart and Wowak said they believed the change would help reduce recidivism in
the county, which stands at 70 percent.

“What we’re doing now doesn’t work all that well, but this is going to give
us an opportunity to do some things that may work better,” Hart said.

Some of the new programs involve looking at the 40 percent of County Jail
inmates who are serving time, versus the 60 percent of inmates who have pending court hearings.

Of those triple nons who are serving sentences, Hart said jail staff planned
to look at each case and consider alternative forms of custody like GPS
monitoring and work release programs, which are essentially supervised community  service. There is also work furlough, which returns the inmate to his or her  normal job.

Big savings promised

Counties were given state funds totaling $400 million this fiscal year to
spend on whatever mix of incarceration, supervision and programs they choose,
with Santa Cruz County receiving $1.6 million.

State finance analysts say realignment will save about $53 million in prison
costs this fiscal year, $125 million next year and $338 million the year after,
even as the counties’ allocation rises to about $1 billion in 2013-14.

But even if counties had the capacity or the staff to supervise more inmates,
the state is not giving them enough money to simply lock them up. Incarceration
is an expensive option; in the Bay Area, jail costs about $77 a day, compared to
up to $49 for electronic monitoring. Drug treatment costs a little more than
jail — $88 a day for a 90-day residential program — but if it works, it saves
taxpayers money in the long run.

Success in other states

Even conservative states like Texas have been steering nonviolent offenders
into drug treatment and re-entry programs instead of building new prisons. The
strategy has been so successful that Texas closed a prison this summer for the
first time in its history. Research indicates prisons may actually increase
crime for several reasons, partly because it gives inmates little practice in
making decisions and encourages them to be distrustful.

But to work, realignment requires an enormous culture shift by both the
jails, which are geared to incarcerating people short-term, not rehabilitating
them, and by probation officers, who must balance helping convicted felons with
protecting public safety.

“It’s not going to work if we just go from prisons to bad jails,” said Craig
Haney, a professor of the psychology of law at UC Santa Cruz and a widely
recognized expert on prisons.

Sentinel staff writer Stephen Baxter contributed to this report.

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: