By PAUL PAYNE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A statewide effort to reduce prison crowding that shifts a sizable burden to counties has been labeled the biggest change to Sonoma County’s criminal justice system in a generation.
Beginning Oct. 1, low-level felons normally sentenced to prison will instead be kept at the county jail. And inmates usually released under state parole supervision will be transferred to county probation jurisdiction.
The realignment is likely to mean a swelling local jail population and shorter periods of incarceration. But some say it offers potential benefits, too.
To cover additional expenses and develop new programs, counties will receive about $460 million from the state this fiscal year. Sonoma County’s share of that is $3.7 million – a number that is expected to rise next year.
Already, a committee that includes the district attorney, sheriff and presiding judge are making recommendations to the Board of Supervisors on how best to allocate the money. Their Monday meetings at the Sheriff’s Office are open to the public.
Bidding has started to hire a criminal justice consultant who will devise an overall plan that will be submitted to the board in late October.
Six new employees will be hired by the sheriff and the Probation Department with more to follow. And talks are underway about creating a “day reporting center” to help parolees find jobs or receive drug treatment and testing.
Public Defender John Abrahams, one of seven voting members of the realignment committee, said the emphasis on rehabilitation and jail alternatives could help lead to a reduction in the number of felons who re-offend.
“The state prison system is hugely expensive and it hasn’t been working,” Abrahams said. “This is an opportunity to change that.”
The shift was a key part of Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget and fulfilled federal mandates to reduce the population of California’s massive prison system, which costs about $9 billion annually.
It does two things: It allows non-violent, non-serious and non-sex criminals to serve time in county jails instead of prison. Secondly, felons in those same groups who have already completed state prison sentences will be supervised as paroles at the county level, where officials believe they are better equipped to treat them than the state.
No state prison inmates will be released early. Those convicted of serious or violent crimes including murder and sex-offenses will go to state prison.
Felons not eligible for state prison — like commercial burglars and petty thieves — will serve their time at the local level, in some cases far-exceeding the maximum one year allowed in county jails.
Chief Probation Officer Bob Ochs, chairman of the realignment committee, said over time, the change is projected to add a daily average of about 400 felons to the jail, probation and local programs.
Ochs said starting in October, about 25 parolees will transfer to local jurisdiction followed by similar numbers in subsequent months. At the same time, 10-20 felons each month who would normally have been sent to state prison will enter the county jail or go on local probation.
The jail’s average population is about 900 inmates with a maximum capacity of about 1,400.
Still, to prevent overcrowding or jail expansion costs, the county will need to develop jail alternative programs.
“Our organizing principle is to minimize the use of jail beds in a manner that is consistent with public safety and maintains the integrity of the system,” Ochs said.
However, there could be risks down the road if adequate state funding isn’t maintained, Ochs said.
“It’s certainly something we’re concerned about,” he said.
District Attorney Jill Ravitch said the costs could mount. In the past, parole violators were sent back to state prison but under realignment many will go into the county jail.
Also, Ravitch said with fewer crimes punishable by state prison, felons might have less incentive to complete rehabilitative programs.
“The question quickly becomes how many people can we house locally and how much will it cost us?” Ravitch said.
Abrahams said if felons are sentenced to the maximum time in jail there won’t be enough money. The law encourages alternative programs, which can help limit repeat offenders, he said.