New thoughts on running the jail

Former chief probation officer and about to become a deputy DA for Butte County

Insanity has been defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. The most recent excessive overtime billing from the Butte County Sheriff’s Office further demonstrates the need to reexamine the entire “consent decree” issue.

The consent decree is outdated. It has been renewed because it provides political cover for excessive expenditures “upon demand” by the Sheriff’s Office and perks for interns and specific folks at Chico State University.

The services rendered under the consent decree are very poor. The O.R. (release on your own recognizance) unit is too small and poorly run. It delivers late, incomplete and unverified reports to the court. The court, defense counsel and district attorney have been frustrated for years by the lack of timely and quality information. Plainly, the jail is losing valuable space and housing too many offenders by having incomplete program designs.

Fundamentally, there are two kinds of people in the criminal-justice system: those we are afraid of and those we are “mad at.” Jails and prisons should hold the dangerous and unstable people whom we fear. We need to be certain that we always have “room at the inn” for such dangerous people.

The people we are “mad at,” on the other hand, should be treated according to their science-based assessments. For most of these people, heightened intervention and real supervision in the community would be sufficient to get them going and keep them from taking up excessive jail days.

But this can be accomplished only by taking a long-term view of the problem. In a county culture of fiscal-year survival of the fittest, this has not been done. Instead, the sheriff’s three political cronies on the Board of Supervisors simply gave the sheriff whatever he wanted, at least until the Plan B referendum and new sheriff’s election in March.

If folks want to fix problems at the jail, they should take 50 percent of the cost overruns at the jail in the past 24 months and begin to fund a fully staffed and correctly run, science-based, integrated treatment referral and O.R./bail program. It should be run by an adequate number of trained people who understand addiction and who can run various screening and assessment instruments. The vast majority of the people who visit the jail have significant mental-health, drug and alcohol problems that are best addressed in a safe manner, including “in-custody” treatment.

System-wide cost savings would result. There would be fewer transported prisoners; fewer court hearings, and expedited case processing. Over a period of years, the county could delay the construction of a new facility, saving literally millions of dollars. The county would also save money on recidivism, on children’s services dollars and on collateral criminal-justice costs. The local quality of life would improve.

Correctly done, treatment works. It has a big "up front" cost and a great long-term payout. Why not invest in something that makes sense? Until we change, we will continue to lock up those who don’t need it and free those who need to be locked up. We will continue to pay and pay and pay. Sounds insane to me.