WatchSonoma Watch

Sonoma County prepares for surge of state felons


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.

9 Responses to “Sonoma County prepares for surge of state felons”

  1. truth in news says:

    It is so sweet to know all those liberal families are going to be reunited by this kind act of the government. I just wish someone would explain to Oblamea that convicted felons can’t vote for him! (Even though he has made it so illegal aliens can!)

  2. Jim says:

    Sweet, more felons in Sonoma County.

  3. Richard says:

    It’s fortunate that Sonoma county has the space to house the influx of state prison inmates. We here in little Santa Cruz county do not, and the extra money and the few new hires will not create more bed space.

  4. Money Grubber says:

    Although this is uncharted territory for the state and local government, its a good thing. It forces them to actually think.

    The USA locks up more people than any other civilized society so something is clearly wrong. The government has dreamed up more ways to put us in prisons and jail than any other country.

    And as they put us into jail and prisons, they then tell us they can’t afford to fully fund schools and other core functions of government. LOTS of prison inmates and LOTS of poorly educated children.

  5. bill says:

    This is a half step toward the reality that our drug and alcohol laws do not serve the public.

    We will need to rethink our attitudes towards drug use and how to deal with drunk driving before any real change and positive results are realized.

    Moving around those unfortunate humans this way is not the answer to the real issues of how we relate to drugs and alcohol.

  6. coral says:

    Besides those who are convicted of truly violent and dangerous crimes, The courts are incarcerating citizens who are found guilty of all manner of non-violent or drug related charges. Then you end up with situations that destroy families financially, create welfare dependent parents/children and displace children into foster care etc.

    Perhaps, now that the counties have to take responsibility and must house those non-violent offenders, a more intelligent strategy will evolve regarding sentencing. Also,I’m shocked at how many people don’t really know the ‘three strikes law’.

  7. Dan Delgado says:

    County Worker,
    I don’t think that’s right, but I’d be pleased to learn I’m mistaken. Where’d you get your info?

  8. County Worker says:

    Fortunately for the counties, the state is under a court oder to reduce prison overcrowding. They have contracts for the housing of the inmates. If the state does not renew the contract, control of the inmates reverts to the state prisons and the inmates are returned. The downside would be the extra correctional staff would be laid off.

  9. Dan Delgado says:

    The real impact of this program may not be seen for another year or two until the state pulls the funding leaving the county to fend for itself. This is Jerry Brown’s idea of budget balancing – put it off on the cities and counties. Meanwhile, Carole Migden continues to draw a paycheck for two meetings a month. Wasn’t it Brown who said something about at his age he had no intention of kicking the can down the road? Yeah, right!