2011-11-11 / Front Page

Inmate release has law enforcement working together

By Michelle Knight

Ventura County justice experts said last week they’re crafting a plan to prevent jail overcrowding as a new law hands them the responsibility of housing hundreds of lowlevel offenders who wil l be transferred from state prisons.

A three-judge court ordered California last year to cut its prison population by 30,000 inmates by June 2013.

In response, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 109 and other legislation early this year to transfer thousands of state prisoners to county jails, effective Oct. 1, and to allocate $5.7 million to local governments to pay for their new duties.

On Nov. 3 Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean joined offi- cials from the district attorney’s office, public defender’s office and probation department in a panel discussion on the effects of the new law on the county. The panel agreed the new law provides an opportunity to collaborate on alternatives to jail time and reduce the 70 percent rate of recidivism— repeated offenses by convicts who have been released.

“ We have an opportunity here in Ventura County to be a leader and say, ‘Okay, what really works and what doesn’t work?’” Dean told an audience of about 50 students, professors and others in a conference room at Thousand Oaks’ Cal Lutheran University. “And because we all get along so well . . . we have an opportunity to . . . create a model that actually might work at other places around the state and around the county.”

Ventura County’s three jails are expected to receive several hundred offenders a year under the so-called realignment law.

The courts convict about 400 people annually on crimes that qualify under realignment for time in county jail rather than state prison.

At that rate, Dean said, county jails will be full in 30 months and force his department to release some inmates who would previously have remained in custody.

Realignment assigns county jails the responsibility of housing people convicted of nonserious, nonviolent and nonsexual offenses—what the panel referred to as “non-non-non” offenders.

Dean said he’ll be judicious in determining whom to release and whom to keep behind bars, but he expects some increase in crime.

“That’s why it’s imperative we do something to reduce recidivism,” he said.

In an effort to keep the most serious offenders incarcerated while preventing jail overcrowding, the board of supervisors approved last week Dean’s plan to equip low-risk offenders with an electronic monitor which will allow them to live at home rather than in jail.

Dean said he’s optimistic that this plan, as well as other programs the panelists are willing to explore, will help the county handle the influx of inmates.

Mark Varela, chief probation officer, said the effort to reduce the rate of reoffending by those on probation or parole should include the participation of community- and faith-based groups that help people overcome alcohol and drug addictions and assist them in acquiring housing, transportation, job training and education.

“These are some of the things that we are working on at this point,” Varela said.

Steve Lipson from the Ventura County public defender’s office said prison sentences aren’t effective in preventing his typical client—a defendant with mental illness and substance abuse problems—from reoffending.

Lipson said he welcomes the willingness of Dean and the other panelists to come up with alternatives to incarceration.

“I think this will work if we give it a chance,” Lipson said. “ Realignment is a long- term solution.”

The good rapport among the members of the panel gives the county an advantage in coming up with effective alternatives to jail time.

“The thought of sitting in a room with . . . the enemy of the state—the public defender— just doesn’t happen (in all counties),” Dean said, eliciting laughter from the audience.

“And as much as I get mad at the public defender once in a while, we have incredible partnerships here.”

Varela said the panelists communicate well with one another.

“So here in Ventura County, we’re off to a really good start, because we come to the table and we talk about solutions; and it gives us the opportunity to look at doing things a little bit better.”

‘There will be failures’

On the other hand, while he supports a collaborative multiagency effort, Special Assistant District Attorney Michael Schwartz said he’s skeptical about how much can accomplished.

He said he’s concerned the new law will allow repeat offenders to serve less jail time than they should.

“These are not just people breaking into vending machines; these include some fairly serious offenses,” Schwartz said, citing that burglary, vehicle theft, drug sales and gang-related offenses qualify for jail rather than prison time under realignment.

“At some point, even for a ‘non-non-non,’ if there’s enough prior offenses, maybe they should go to prison for a while.”

Schwartz said a person sentenced to two years in jail and two years probation and given credit for employment, for instance, could serve only a few months in custody.

“ I’m not suggesting that anyone here is trying to give criminals a pass . . . but I think there’s going to be pressure on the whole system to try and cram more people into jail than it can fit, and something’s going to have to give,” Schwartz said.

“I hope I’m wrong. I don’t want this to fail—I want this to succeed.”

Dean said the new law does present challenges.

They include adopting the extensive requirements that the state prisons mandate regarding medical care for inmates, some of whom are sentenced to multiple years; modifying jails to segregate the more serious criminals from low-level offenders; and ensuring continual financial support from the state.

This year, Ventura County received $6.5 million to care for its additional jail inmates.

But the county projects realignment costs at $7.2 million, Dean said. And though the state has funded realignment this year, it’s been known to dip into local coffers to make up for deficits.

“If the state yanks the money, I don’t know what we’ll do,” Dean said.

An audience member brought up another issue: Under realignment, a person convicted of solicitation for murder would serve time in jail, not prison.

Lipson said the charge of solicitation for murder rarely comes up but it’s one of the issues state and local officials will have to work out.

He said there will be “bumps in the road” under realignment, including occasions when an early-release inmate commits a serious crime.

“We can’t be judged by our failures, because there will be failures,” Lipson said.

“ We should be judged on the evidence-based practice of whether it’s working or not.”

Varela added, “Bad people will continue to do bad things, and we have to be ready for it.”

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