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SD County To Let More Offenders Serve Sentences In The Community

Above: Inmates at California's Chino State Prison sit inside a metal cage in the hallway as they wait to be assigned permanent housing or for medical, mental health, counselor or other appointments.

Aired 9/28/11 on KPBS News.

Starting next week, the State of California will start sending San Diego County thousands of prisoners who, till now, were locked up in state prisons or supervised by state parole officers. County Supervisors have approved a plan to try to free up enough jail space to house them all.

It’s all happened so fast that the public is just beginning to wake up to the implications. The state decided last spring to pass thousands of prisoners from their overcrowded prisons on to the counties.

Supervisor Diane Jacob expressed the feeling of almost dazed amazement that this is hitting counties up and down the state as they grapple with how to handle the new state mandate.

San Diego Impact

  • San Diego County will take the responsibility of approximately 4,000 offenders who will be shifted from state prisons
  • About 2,000 of them are known as post-release offenders who would have been supervised by state parole upon release and must now be supervised locally by the Probation Department, in addition to the 14,000 adult offenders already supervised by the department.
  • The other 2,000 are non-violent, non-serious, non-sex offenders who will shift from custody in state prison to local jails run by the Sheriff’s Department, with only 800 additional beds available.

“This is without a doubt the most historic change of the criminal justice system that’s ever happened in the State of California,” she said.

The San Diego County has had about five months to prepare, as Supervisor Greg Cox pointed out.

“ To think,” he said, “that this is going to start on Saturday is to me a very scary prospect.”

Over the next few months 2,000 state parolees will arrive, and 2,000 offenders will be sentenced to county jail instead of state prison.

San Diego is in a better position than some. Many California counties have jails that are already overcrowded. San Diego has some jail space, but it’s still not enough, as Chief Probation Officer Mack Jenkins pointed out.

“Remember,” he said, “that under realignment, the county must now accommodate roughly 2,000 felons in a jail system that currently has only 800 vacant beds.”

That’s why the plan is to find ways to let non-violent, non-sexual offenders serve time outside of jail, in the community. The County is hiring 75 more probation officers to monitor offenders using ankle bracelets and GPS devices.

“if you ever wanted to be a probation officer,” Jenkins said, “now is the time.”

Jenkins said San Diego’s probation office has already managed to cut recidivism down to less than 40 percent.That’s compared to almost 70 percent among state prisoners.

The plan also calls for more community-based services to help keep people out of jail. That includes things like drug treatment programs. However the head of County Health and Human Service, Nick Macchione, admits the extra resources may not make up for the cuts his department has seen recently.

Supervisor Pam Slater Price sees the bright side, if more money is forthcoming for programs to keep people out of jail.

The county might at some point be able to contract out more work to community nonprofits that already work with non-violent offenders. For example, Scott Silverman of Second Chance said this change is a great opportunity to help people avoid the revolving door of being in and out of jail.

“Warehousing people in jails and prisons doesn’t work,” he said.

But, Silverman points out, the way the transfer of prisoners is managed is going to be key. He knows people who are watching carefully, and they’re the ones weighing the risks of committing a crime.

“There’s already rumors in the street there’s no more room at the inn,” he said, “ so they are already talking about it.”

The biggest unknown is how the change will be paid for. The county has estimated it could cost $100 million a year. The state has promised San Diego $25 million so far, but Walt Ekard, the county’s chief administrative officer, said there are no guarantees the state will keep its commitment in the future.

“In the end,” Ekard said, “this is a serious, concern. We are at great risk as a result of what I still believe was a precipitous decision made by the state in a panic mode to realign programs of this magnitude in great haste and we’re stuck with it. “

The first batch of about 250 prisoners will return to San Diego from state prison this weekend.

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