A ‘paradigm shift’ in public safety

Butte County set to implement far-reaching changes to criminal-justice system

Sheriff Jerry Smith says his department will have to be creative in its handling of offenders in order to keep the county jail from overflowing.

Sheriff Jerry Smith says his department will have to be creative in its handling of offenders in order to keep the county jail from overflowing.

Photo By Kory Honea

Crime exclusion list:
Some 60 crimes that ordinarily would be considered non-violent and non-sex offenses have been excluded from that category. They include, for example, felony stalking, bribing a legislator, possession of an explosive device, solicitation for murder and, oddly, possession or sale of horse meat.

Monumental changes described as “the most comprehensive … in a generation” are coming to Butte County’s criminal-justice system beginning Oct. 1, thanks to the realignment of public-safety services throughout the state.

County officials, while not exactly delighted by the mandated changes, say they are fully prepared to implement AB 109, the Public Safety Realignment Act sponsored by Gov. Jerry Brown and passed by the Legislature this term. They have a well-developed plan in place, and if all goes well, they say, that plan could improve public safety while decreasing prison time for an entire class of felons and saving taxpayers millions of dollars.

The sweeping nature of the changes cannot be overstated. As county Chief Administrative Officer Paul Hahn told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday (Sept. 27), they represent “a complete new paradigm shift on how we’re going to be dealing with corrections.”

Indeed, a few days before, on Thursday, Sept. 22, several of the county’s top officials, including Hahn, District Attorney Mike Ramsey, Sheriff Jerry Smith, Undersheriff Kory Honea, Court Executive Officer Kimberly Flener and Interim Chief Probation Officer Ken Morgan, took the unprecedented step of traveling to Chico to brief this newspaper and the Chico Enterprise-Record on the changes and emphasize their importance. That’s how much they want the public to know about and understand the changes.

Two principal factors led to passage of AB 109: the state budget crisis, which has forced a reduction in corrections spending, and a federal court determination, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, that prison overcrowding in California constituted cruel and unusual punishment and that the state must reduce its inmate population by 34,000 in the next two years.

AB 109 mandates that, starting immediately, counties stop sending offenders convicted of nonviolent, nonsexual and nonserious crimes (drug dealing, for instance, or burglary) to state prison and instead put them in jail—or, as it’s being called, “county prison.” (Offenders currently in state prison will finish their terms there.)

It also mandates that, when these “nons” are released, they be supervised by county probation officers, not state parole officers. (Violent and sex offenders released from state prison will continue to be supervised by state parole officers.)

Offenders who violate the terms of their probation will, except in rare instances, not be sent back to prison, as now occurs, but instead will be dealt with on the county level through a variety of sanctions, including “flash incarceration” for up to 10 days.

The most obvious result of this realignment will be increased pressure on the county jail, which, with 575 of its 614 beds currently occupied, is already at what Sheriff Smith calls “functional capacity.” (Some 120 of the inmates, however, are federal prisoners being housed there under a deal former Sheriff Perry Reniff made with the U.S. Marshals Service. The arrangement brings in some $3 million in revenue each year, and without that funding, Smith said, he couldn’t afford to keep the whole jail open.)

To avoid running out of jail room, the county will institute a pretrial-release program with enhanced supervision; an alternative-custody program (using ankle bracelets and GPS monitoring) with a day reporting center located at a renovated wing of the juvenile hall; and a “recidivism reduction” program providing such services as job training, GED studies, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, mental-health services and counseling. This will be done through partnerships with other county departments and community-based organizations.

The Probation Department will face a similar crunch as it assumes supervision of an estimated 256 offenders between Oct. 1 and June 30, 2012. It will add five officers and one supervising officer to handle this increased caseload.

In fact, the county will be hiring quite a few people in several departments as it implements AB 109. Funding for the first nine months is $3.18 million, of which $343,000 is for planning and implementation. Funding for 2012-13 is set at $3.6 million, but has yet to be authorized.

In fact, one of the county’s biggest concerns is ongoing funding of realignment. The governor has expressed determination to pass a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a source of funding, but given Sacramento’s dysfunction, he may have trouble doing so. And the counties, Hahn said, “have been burned by the state time and time again,” so they’re naturally skeptical.

What the county has going for it is exceptional experience in creating and operating innovative alternatives to incarceration that include, as the plan states, “problem-solving courts, progressive prosecutorial programs, rehabilitative in-custody programs, and evidence-based supervision and post-release services.”

It also has the advantage of being one of the first counties to begin developing and completing a plan. In fact, Smith said, other counties are now borrowing elements from Butte’s plan in an effort to catch up.

Another plus of realignment is that it will keep jailed offenders closer to home, enabling them to maintain family ties here and increasing their prospect for success upon release.

The plan’s success hinges most of all on funding, but external conditions also will play a role. This is not a good time for anyone coming out of prison. Even people with no criminal record and a good employment history are having trouble finding work. If funding is inadequate and recidivism stays high, the program is likely to fail.

On the other hand, Hahn said, there’s no turning back: “The genie is out of the bottle.” If funding is inadequate, county officials everywhere “will be screaming at the state, trying to get the Legislature to provide more funding.”

Hahn admits Butte County officials had doubts at first, but he said they eventually decided they had no choice but to make AB 109 work as well as possible. “We’re optimistic,” he said. “We believe we’re on the right track.”