Case overload

DA pushes for new court to process crime tied to prisoner realignment

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey says the county needs a fourth felony court to process backed-up cases.

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey says the county needs a fourth felony court to process backed-up cases.

CN&R file photo

A report released this spring by Chico State political science professors indicated the prisoner realignment under Assembly Bill 109 has been a success, both locally and statewide, in terms of reducing rates of recidivism.

At that time, Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, who has been critical of the bill in the past, said he was pleased with the report and that it “shows that the process is working for AB 109 here.” However, Ramsey appeared to take the opposite stance during the Butte County Board of Supervisors meeting on Dec. 10, when he argued that the county needs to increase its capacity to process felony cases.

Signed into law in April 2011, AB 109 was a response to a federal mandate to address overcrowding in California’s prisons. By keeping newly convicted low-level felons in county jail to serve their sentences, the state has prevented tens of thousands of new admissions. But during the recent supervisors’ meeting, Ramsey maintained that AB 109 has further strained the county’s overloaded criminal-justice system.

“We have better figures now, two years into this grand experiment,” he said, proceeding to fire off statistics on criminal activity in Butte County. Between October 2011 and October 2013, felony filings are up 21 percent, he said, while vehicle thefts are up 100 percent and drug cases are “up dramatically.”

Additionally, many cases of repeat drug offenders—which Ramsey dubbed “rubber band” offenders because their multiple charges eventually get grouped together in court—are a direct result of realignment, he said.

“AB 109 causes overcrowding at our jail, and the people most often released are drug offenders, who have a tendency to go right back to their drug dealing and drug using,” he explained during a recent phone interview. “What we see is that they commit a number of drug crimes before we even get them into court.”

The CN&R pressed Ramsey on the apparent discrepancy between his earlier statement on AB 109’s positive effect on recidivism rates and his report of an increase in repeat drug offenders.

“That depends on your definition of recidivism,” he said, pointing out that rubber-band cases aren’t included in recidivism statistics. “The figures on people who have actually received a conviction, serve their sentence and have some recovery time are pretty good. The folks who haven’t been convicted yet aren’t considered recidivists.”

During the Dec. 10 supervisors’ meeting, Ramsey illustrated how his office has become bogged down by felony filings to justify his request for a general-fund allocation of $338,108 to staff a fourth felony court.

Currently, a typical felony case takes about six months to be resolved, Ramsey said, while murder cases can take up to two years. “When I look back [to] many years ago, it was not unusual to have a murder case wrapped up in six months.”

The supervisors approved the budget adjustment and, with the recent addition of four prosecuting attorneys, the new court will be up and running by the beginning of January. (In this context, the term “court” refers to a scheduled time to process felony cases, not a building.)

Ramsey did concede that AB 109 is not exclusively to blame for his office’s increased workload. He said that, over the years, criminal law in general has become increasingly complex, meaning “much more work for each case.”