Pre-emptive types

Two public-safety leaders emphasize proactive approaches to City Council

Two proactive visions for public safety, one that may apply throughout Butte County and another specific to Chico, were outlined for the Chico City Council during its regular meeting on Tuesday (March 17).

The first was delivered by Sheriff Kory Honea, who addressed five council members—Councilwoman Ann Schwab and Vice Mayor Sean Morgan were absent—about a potential $40 million expansion and renovation of Butte County Jail he says will, in part, help inmates better prepare for life after release. Then Chico Fire Chief Shane Lauderdale brought forth a proposal to develop a new fire protection model in Chico that extends 50 years into the future.

Honea explained that running the jail has changed significantly since 2011, when AB 109, also known as public safety realignment, was passed into law. Now, many offenders who would have previously served their sentences in state prisons do so in county jails.

When the 614-bed jail was built in 1963, it wasn’t with long sentences in mind and “it was never contemplated that we’d hold the kind of criminals we do now,” Honea said. The number of hardened criminals, including gang members, housed in the jail has increased significantly since the realignment, Honea said, and high-security beds are scarce.

Meanwhile, a court-ordered jail population cap that’s been in place since the 1970s, coupled with realignment, has forced the jail to prematurely release inmates by the thousands each year. As a result, the Sheriff’s Office has taken proactive measures such as developing an alternative custody program—essentially home arrest with a GPS ankle bracelet—that also aims to reduce an offender’s likelihood of recidivism by addressing the underlying reasons they’re driven to commit crimes.

“Our view of what public safety is has matured greatly over the last couple years,” Honea said. “Law enforcement used to be ‘Arrest them, lock them up,’ and that was it. Our job was over. But it doesn’t do much good if we [release an inmate] and they go right back out and break into your home and steal your property.”

The alternative custody program has translated to great successes that could be replicated within the jail, Honea said. That is, if it had more than one classroom, a converted supply closet in which it’s impossible to regularly engage nearly 600 inmates.

For the renovation, Honea is seeking $40 million in grant funding, pursuant to Senate Bill 863. In order to secure the grant, the county must match 10 percent—no chump change, at $4 million. Honea came before the council to discuss potentially collecting a countywide jail impact fee from developers of new housing projects. The fee has been collected in unincorporated areas since 2007, but not within the limits of any city in the county.

To move forward, all cities within the county must be on board; Paradise and Oroville have already approved the fees. The City Council took no action on Tuesday night, but requested that staff place the matter on a future agenda.

Later in the meeting, Lauderdale came before the council to request approval of a reorganization of his department that would include the addition of a Community Risk Reduction Division.

Lauderdale has long stressed the importance of tailoring fire-protection services specifically to Chico, maintaining that there’s a threat due to concentration in Chico’s downtown core and south campus neighborhood, where fires could easily leap building-to-building.

“Our downtown and our south campus area have the same fire protection needs they did in 1950,” he said. “If we had addressed this [then], we wouldn’t be talking about the high cost of fire protection today.”

The proposed reorganization includes promoting a captain to division chief of Community Risk Reduction, who also will serve as the fire marshal; recruiting a corps of volunteers to provide public education about fire risk-reduction and organize community emergency response teams; training up to 12 firefighters on arson investigation to pursue cost recovery and prosecution of arson crimes; and introducing a fire prevention specialist to conduct inspections of conditional-use occupancies.

Councilman Randall Stone motioned to approve the reorganization and took the opportunity to praise Lauderdale’s leadership.

“Your work is exemplary,” he said. “Change has been implemented to be less reactionary and more oriented toward fire prevention.”

The council voted unanimously to approve the reorganization.