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Political Analysis: State Budget Cuts May Put More Burdens On County Jails

Audio

Aired 7/21/10

San Diego officials are reacting to the Governor's proposal to keep more low-level felons out of state prisons. The idea may bring a big increase to San Diego County's jail population.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. San Diego's newly elected Sheriff Bill Gore has hardly had time to savor his victory in the June primary. But now, he and the entire county jail system are bracing in response to a new state proposal to keep more convicted felons in county jail instead of sending them to state prison. KPBS Political correspondent Gloria Penner is here with more. Hi, Gloria.

GLORIA PENNER (KPBS Political Correspondent): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Gloria, first of all, who is proposing this change and why?

PENNER: If you’ll allow me, Maureen, I’m going to set the stage first and tell everybody where we are. That California state budget is more than a month overdue as the state faces an estimated $19.1 billion deficit. They trimmed billions from the state spending last year but we’re still in a deficit situation. And the fiscal year actually began already, it began on July the first, so the legislature has failed to pass a budget and this is the 23rd time in 24 years that the legislature has missed the budget deadline. The legislature’s four leaders, two of whom will be – were in their first budget negotiation as leaders, and the governor, met face to face for the first time the day before the budget was due. And so that sets the stage.

CAVANAUGH: It certainly does.

PENNER: All right, this is the governor’s proposal. Among other proposals like eliminating the state’s Welfare to Work program and most child care for the poor, his $83.4 billion plan would freeze funding for local schools as well, cut state workers’ pay. We’ve heard about all of this. But the plan that we’re talking about would reduce prison costs by shifting the responsibility for state inmates to the local level, as the governor has proposed before. He says the state would save $244 million by sending low level felons to local jails instead of to state prisons. Now the counties would receive $11,500 per offender to help pay for probation and drug courts and alternative methods of custody such as home detention.

CAVANAUGH: So that – they’re proposing this change in order to save the state some desperately needed money…

PENNER: This is true.

CAVANAUGH: …but what are the nuts and bolts of the proposal? What are they actually proposing that the counties do?

PENNER: Well, first of all, there are three proposed budget plans before the legislature, one from the Democratic caucus in the Assembly, one from the Democrats in the Senate and the governor’s. And the way it would work, it’s a big change, although it’s just a few lines in the middle of a 34-page summary. It’s a plan that could see the lowest level criminals released from local jails to make room for a larger crowd of felons, about 2100 a year. And here’s how it works. Criminals that are sentenced to less than a year in custody could stay—would stay—in a local jail while those who get longer sentences are sent to state prison. And under the change, certain criminals with a sentence of three years or less stay in county jail. People who violate their parole, something that normally would draw prison time, also would stay local. And felons who might be housed locally would include those whose crimes are not serious or violent. Sex offenders would still be sent to state prison. So we would get a new population, a population of felons coming into county jail.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Generally speaking what the policy has been is that if you have a jail sentence of a year or less, you stay in the county and you’re not sent to the state. This would change it so if you’re sentence is three years or less, you stay in county jail.

PENNER: Correct. Correct.

CAVANAUGH: So how many eligible people might then be added to the county jail system instead of going to the state prison?

PENNER: Oh, well, it’s hard to know the exact number but it could be as high as 2100. Right now our jails have fewer than the number of people that they can accommodate.

CAVANAUGH: Ah.

PENNER: They can accommodate about 5500 people. Right now, the population is somewhere around 4700, so the point is that if the budget passes as proposed with this plan in it, the county jails would house hundreds more felons each year. And, thus, they would become overcrowded, and we’ve heard about that with the state prisons.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Gloria, you recently heard Sheriff Bill Gore talk about this proposal. Was he concerned about the plan?

PENNER: Oh, he was. He sees it as a severe problem with local jam – local jails jammed to capacity within just a few months. He says that it’s going to force the sheriff’s department to come up with some creative alternatives to incarceration like the possibility of the GPS monitoring where you wear a GPS system and we know where you are, or house arrest. So there are going to be options for letting people actually stay out of jail rather than going into jail.

CAVANAUGH: Now what are some of the other reactions from local political leaders to this idea? I would imagine that some people have some concerns.

PENNER: Well, they do. And what I wanted to talk about specifically is this recidivism rate. This is an important part of it because, according to Gore, California has a recidivism rate of 72%. That means 72% of those who are released go back into prison. In comparison, let’s say, the Texas rate is only 28%. And so when you think about that, what you want to do is, according to Gore, is to cut down on the recidivism rate, that in some way when people come out of prison they are trained in a way to deal with society whether it be through math, through English lessons, through alcohol and drug abuse programs, through the ability to perhaps take anger management classes. But there are those who believe that a high recidivism rate means a low crime rate, and do you know actually that has happened? When we put in three strikes in ’94, the state crime rate actually dropped although the recidivism rate went up because you had more people going back into jail when they had a fairly minor offense. One advocate of this is former San Diego Assemblyman and State Senator Larry Stirling. He’s now a Superior Court judge. And he believes that a high recidivist rate caused by parole violations is a good thing because to him it means those felons’ prison terms were too short and it’s better to get them off the streets. He believes that our present crime rate is so low—and it is low, it’s really dropped—because 160,000 of the worst of the worst are locked up. And he believes that prisons are – have not – not that we have too many people in prison but that our prisons need to be built up, that they’re over – that they’re underbuilt.

CAVANAUGH: We need more prisons is what he’s saying.

PENNER: That’s right. Now, other political leaders, well, we have Chris Kehoe. She said that this isn’t going to work. It’s – The proposal is impractical. So she’s definitely opposed to it. The Assembly Republican leader Martin Garrick, who lives in Carlsbad, is from Carlsbad, his spokesman said according to the North County Times that the proposal is part of ongoing discussions and that Republicans want to make sure that anything done with inmates and counties consult with sheriffs across the state. So they’re not really committing themselves. Supervisor Diane Jacob was very clear. She said we don’t have room. They’ll be out in our neighborhoods. Every citizen should be up in arms. I don’t know if she means that literally. So we have a, you know, all over the spectrum, people who really hate the proposal and people who say, hey, I think it may be workable. One of the people who thinks it might be workable is the head of our probation department because he sees that more money would be coming to the probation department. Yes, their caseload would increase but they might be getting more money to hire more caseworkers.

CAVANAUGH: Now we already saw earlier this year a change in the status of the county jails. San Diego County was recently ordered to release inmates from county jail, as were counties all across California. Will that free up any room for these new felons that may be coming to stay for as long as three years in our county jails?

PENNER: Right, well, that new law actually took effect last January and it had an immediate effect in San Diego County where about 260 non-violent offenders were released. So most of them were doing time for drug possession or petty theft, so they were let go, so that was 260. The lower risk offenders will not be under strict parole under this proposal. They will be under regular super – they won’t be under regular supervision of a parole officer so we will see that some of this early release program does free up some beds. But according to Gore, we’re going to get hundreds more that are filtered to us from the state prison system.

CAVANAUGH: Now aside from the reaction from the politicians, I’m wondering where more opposition to this idea might be coming from. What do, for instance, victims’ rights groups say about this plan?

PENNER: Oh, yes. Yes, the plan is being attacked by the state’s leading advocacy groups for victims as violating Constitutional protections against early release of prisoners. The Department of Corrections for California says it’s following the law by continuing a program that encourages low risk inmates to behave, to learn a skill, to better transition to life on the outside but Crime Victims United and their allies in the legislature say the prisons agency’s practice violates a tentative Proposition 9, which was approved by the voters in 2008 and it ordered a crackdown on early releases and established a series of rights for victims. They actually have filed in San Diego Superior Court to get this all reversed and they feel that crime victims have the right to expect that persons convicted of committing criminal acts be sufficiently punished in both the manner and the length of the sentences imposed by the courts.

CAVANAUGH: So they’re filing suit against the whole idea of releasing – lightening up the way that prisoners are released, whether it’s from county jail or from state prison.

PENNER: Exactly.

CAVANAUGH: Now as you pointed out, Gloria, in your opening, we are in a very longterm, it seems, budget process. When are state lawmakers expected to vote on this proposal? In other words, this is just a proposal as we’re sitting here talking.

PENNER: Yes, it’s the governor’s proposal and we’re having, you know, the discussion now even though this should have been voted upon, the budget should have been passed a little over a month ago. Now the amazing thing is that the Senate and the Assembly have both adjourned for summer recess so they’re out. Yes, they’re out and they’re talking but not to each other because they’re not all in Sacramento together, and they are not going to return and resume floor session until August. So we still have a couple of weeks with no real legislation being passed, no budget being passed, but Senator Chris Kehoe from San Diego says the whole thing is impractical anyway, it’s not acceptable to local counties and it’s not going to happen. Now if her fellow Democrats agree with her, this could stop the whole thing cold.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So the proposal remains a proposal and I think it’s important to point out as well how many law enforcement organizations are also against this plan.

PENNER: Yes, there are several. We have, let me see, I think I have a list of some of them. Well, the point is that you will have organizations that really represent law enforcement, sheriffs’ associations, the California Peace Officers Association, the California Police Chiefs Association, and the California State Sheriffs Association, all were ask – all requested, nicely, they requested it, that the proposal as shaped by the governor be taken off the table.

CAVANAUGH: And, as you say, we don’t have a budget, we – nobody’s talking about a budget because they’re not even in session in Sacramento. And so the earliest we could possibly see this is next month.

PENNER: This is true but when you listen to Sheriff Bill Gore speak about it, and he spoke about it to the downtown Rotary last Thursday, I was there, he speaks about it with great passion. I mean, he sees it both as a problem and also as an opportunity, maybe a different way of approaching low level criminals. And if you remember the legislation that’s working its way through the legislature, this is the new law, Chelsea’s Law.

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

PENNER: Chelsea’s Law would have a trade off in which petty theft criminals would actually not go to county jail and that would allow a – more space for high level criminals at this point.

CAVANAUGH: Right, it would change petty theft to a misdemeanor along with other kinds of low felonies.

PENNER: Exactly. So…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

PENNER: I’m sorry. Instead of going to state prison…

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

PENNER: …they would be in county jails.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly.

PENNER: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: So a lot of machinations going on to try to get that prison population down. I want to thank you so much for explaining that.

PENNER: You’re welcome, Maureen. And I’ll be back when we know what’s what and when our legislature decides that they’re actually going to take a vote on this.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. KPBS political correspondent Gloria Penner. And if you’d like to comment, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.

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