Two Views: by Bruce Anderson and Skippy Massey
The View From the Top
By Bruce Anderson
Anderson Valley Advertiser
CALIFORNIA’S SWEEPING REALIGNMENT of its criminal justice system took effect nine months ago to address (in part) court-ordered reductions in overcrowding at state prisons. When the plan to shift thousands of inmates to county jails was unveiled local governments were promised that only those convicted of nonviolent, nonsexual and “non-serious” crimes would be moved to local lock-ups.
The Associated Press first reported days after the law took effect in October that at least two dozen offenses shifting to local control could be considered serious or violent, prompting angry responses from local officials who felt blindsided.
Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation last week shifting 10 crimes back to state prisons. Among them are several involving child sex offenses, selling drugs to a child in a park, seriously injuring a peace officer during an escape or while resisting arrest, and escaping from a mental hospital.
But the new law also shifts four more crimes to county jails. They include possession of certain dangerous items, such as certain explosives, various knives, and exotic weapons like guns or swords hidden in walking canes, belt buckles, lipstick cases, wallets or writing pens. Check fraud and defrauding the state’s food stamp program also now merit time in jail instead of prison.
State Senator Mark Leno, chairman of the Senate budget committee, said the changes merely fix drafting errors that will affect a small number of criminals who should have merited jail time all along.
The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation estimated that about a dozen more criminals will be affected in any given year because most of the changes were already included in previous projections.
“Taxpayers will save money by having them serve time in county jail rather than in state prison,” said Leno, D-San Francisco. “We’re getting smarter on crime so we can better invest limited resources on education rather than corrections, which every poll shows Californians support. And of course education is our best known crime prevention tool.”
Another new law lets sheriffs release inmates up to 30 days early to comply with population caps, up from five days previously; and release inmates on electronic monitoring immediately instead of requiring them to serve at least 30 days behind bars for a misdemeanor or 60 days for a felony.
Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, said in a statement that the changes mean “more un-rehabilitated criminals on the streets, serving only a tiny fraction of their sentences in jail.”
Lawmakers also approved giving counties more freedom to transfer prisoners between counties because of jail crowding or if inmates need specialized care. “We’re just looking for flexibility,” California State Sheriffs’ Association lobbyist Nick Warner said in supporting changes that will let counties lower their jail populations.
The budget for the new fiscal year that began Sunday, July 1, includes $500 million for a new round of local jail construction and more than $900 million to help counties pay for their increased cost of handling the additional criminals. Every county will get at least double the amount of state money it received in the first nine months. Brown wants to guarantee that money in the state Constitution as part of a proposal on the November ballot that also would temporarily raise sales and income taxes.
The budget also begins carrying out a broad reorganization of the Corrections Department that was announced in April.
Officials are looking to save money, improve poor inmate medical and mental health treatment, and end years of federal court oversight as prison crowding eases because of the shifting of criminals to local control.
It includes money for three cell houses within existing prisons to house about 2,400 inmates with physical or mental disabilities or substance abuse problems. After the three dormitory-style units are built in four years, the department will close the outdated California Rehabilitation Center in the Riverside County community of Norco. It provides funding to complete the California Health Care Facility in Stockton, convert the neighboring Dewitt Nelson Youth Correctional Facility into an adult care facility; and to improve other prison medical and mental health units statewide.
With the prison population declining, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst had recommended that lawmakers reject some of the construction money sought by the department. But Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate said the department needs the medical and mental health facilities to comply with court orders.
The analyst also recommended that the state continue housing some inmates in private prisons in other states indefinitely as a partial alternative to building more cells in California prisons. However, the budget endorses the department’s plans to return all 9,400 out-of-state inmates to California prisons by 2016.
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The View From the Bottom
With the state’s public safety realignment plan taking effect in October, jail officials have been juggling the responsibility of holding serious criminals for longer periods of time instead of sending them to state prison. State prisoners are being returned back to Humboldt sooner. Consequently, larger numbers of less dangerous offenders have been released from jail.
It’s like playing a game of musical chairs. One hopes nothing goes seriously sideways and no one gets left out after the music stops.
Acting Eureka Police Chief Murl Harpham said he’s noticed the jail has been booking and releasing felons because it simply doesn’t have the room to house them, according to the Times-Standard. He’s not pleased with the results.
”Between the first and the 19th of June, we had three situations where we had three females taken to jail on drug felonies and they had to be released,” Harpham said. “The jail staff told our officers that they had to do it because of realignment and the jail overcrowding.”
An example of this problem was Timothy Vivian, a Sonoma County resident on felony parole who was prematurely released from the Humboldt County jail on June 16. Citing a ‘parole overcrowding release,’ Vivian was released to himself without supervision by his parole agent on a Saturday night at 9 p.m. Mr. Mr. Vivian, as you recall, went on a high-speed reckless chase in Phillipsville a week later. Crashing the stolen truck he was driving, Vivian was pursued into the brush, batoned and Tasered, and rearrested by HCSO deputies and relodged into the county jail on June 25.
The jail has a 391-person capacity level. Sheriff Downey said the jail was over capacity about a month and a half ago that required extra beds to be brought in. Downey said the jail is especially crowded in regard to certain inmate populations, noting the jail has too many maximum-security men who have to be housed in a cell by themselves.
“Our rate of capacity is 32, and today we’re at 44,” Downey said last week. “For our protective custody males that need to be protected from the general population, our rate of capacity is 35. Today we’re at 43,” he told the Times-Standard.
Downey said the jail is trying to keep its numbers under control by working with the county Probation Department to enroll offenders of a non-violent and non-sexual nature in alternative jail and work programs. Instead of doing time in their jail cell, offenders can participate in the Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program (SWAP) by doing manual labor tasks around the county.
Downey said early releases and ankle monitors are other tools the jail and Probation Department can use to keep overcrowding under control. He said the measures aren’t 100 percent foolproof and that there are lingering concerns about public safety.
“We’re going into uncharted territory,” Downey said. Well, not exactly. We’ve been around this block before.
Humboldt County went through a similar period of jail overcrowding in the 1990s. The above measures were put into place and the Probation Department screened and released inmates through the Own Recognizance (OR) program prior to, and after, court sentencing, reducing jail bed space as needed.
One difference between then and now is the Probation Department currently has a shortage of officers. Due to budget cuts necessitating five positions going vacant, burgeoning caseload levels are already busting at the seams, according to Chief Probation Officer William Damiano. They can barely supervise what they have now.
Another quirk in the whole mix is the District Attorney’s Office losing its share of available prosecuting attorneys. District Attorney Paul Gallegos has threatened not to prosecute certain misdemeanors altogether unless his budget is bolstered. We can imagine that will free up bed space in ways we never dreamed of as criminal accountability gets thrown out the window.
The new jail addition—a monstrosity referred to by some as the Humboldt Hilton or the Salmon Slammer—was shortly built during the jail overcrowding of the 1990s after state funding was made available for its construction. A large interior portion of the old jail, dank and dark, still sits unused and vacant, out-of-code and below required standards for current inmate housing and used for storage purposes. It could, with enough engineering money shoveled into it, be retrofitted for additional housing.
To note, Humboldt County is replacing its aging 40 year-old Juvenile Hall for a spanking new $16 million facility built with state grant funding requiring a $3 million county match of hard money. They are close to inking the deal and starting construction soon.
This isn’t our first rodeo. With $1.4 billion in additional State funds kicking down to California’s 58 counties for a new round of construction costs housing criminals, combined with our overcrowded jail and local scoundrels being released before their time is up only to wantonly reoffend in highly publicized escapades, don’t be surprised to see Humboldt County reposition itself for yet another round of hirings and newer Salmon Slammer construction.