An expensive and critical study of the county’s legal system was touted by its author and panned by its biggest target, District Attorney Mike Ramsey, at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting.
The board commissioned the study in August, 2003, to address the long-standing problem of overcrowding at the county jail, which has operated under an exemption from state regulations—known as a consent decree—since 1985. After a bidding process, the study was contracted to Berkeley’s Institute for Law and Policy Planning, which charged $123,635 to complete the report.
Although the report does deal with jail overcrowding, it seeks to address that problem by pointing out inefficiencies in the court process, which ostensibly lead to more defendants being housed in the jail for longer periods of time. The two main problems in Butte County Superior Court, the report finds, are bad case management practices, which keep cases from coming to trial in a timely manner, and a “rigid” plea-bargaining policy in the D.A.'s office, which ILPP Director Dr. Alan Kalmanoff told the board resulted in too many cases being brought to jury trial.
“It is not how many people come in [the jail], it is how long they stay,” he said. “The data analysis we did shows delays, breakdowns and waste everywhere.”
The report states that defendants are granted too many continuances in Butte County, which clog the courts and jail. It also takes aim at the county’s collaborative-treatment courts, the lack of information sharing among police agencies, the high number of grants the county relies on to fund law enforcement and the high number of misdemeanor arrestees brought to the jail from Chico and other cities.
Kalmanoff told the board it could save $2 million a year if it initiated the solutions outlined in the report. But when pressed by Paradise Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi on specifics as to how and when those saving could be obtained, Kalmanoff admitted there was “no way to guess and no way to say.”
Ramsey, whose office was depicted in the report as being bloated and grant-heavy, blasted the report’s findings, saying it was based on data that was faulty, dated and in some cases nonexistent.
“The report is not a complete waste, but there are some very serious problems with it,” he told the board, noting that his plea-bargaining policies were similar to those in eight other California counties and that his office handled cases, such as welfare fraud, that in many other counties are handled by other agencies. This, he said, accounts for the perception that he employs too many investigators.
Ramsey also decried what he termed an “unwarranted attack” on the county’s drug and other treatment courts, which according to him have greatly reduced recidivism rates among such offenders, so much so that courts around the nation have begun to adopt similar models.
If the county really wanted to deal with jail overcrowding, Ramsey said, it could have spent the money it put toward the report on hiring the staff necessary to run a jail program that would release and monitor nonviolent offenders or fund the halfway-completed effort to create a countywide shared database of warrant information.
Kalmanoff suggested that Ramsey and others in the court system are being resistant to change.
“People have a daily path to travel, and they don’t like rocks in the road,” he said. “[But] the system needs a tune-up.”
Speaking to Kalmanoff’s suggestion that too many grants can “jack up” some parts of the court system while leaving others unfunded, Chico Supervisor Mary Anne Houx offered that the county had been “running on grants” for the last 20 years and would likely be bankrupt without them. In the end, the supervisors accepted the report without discussing which, if any, parts of it will be implemented.