By PAUL PAYNE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A 20-year-old Windsor man behind a rash of commercial burglaries was the first to be sentenced in Sonoma County under a new state law that requires certain offenders to serve their time in local jails rather than state prison.
Ryan Scott Roberts, who stole such items as laptops and bridal wear in a two-month spree to get money for drugs, was facing three years and four months in prison under the old law, which ended Friday.
But on Monday, Roberts’ situation brightened when he received a two-year, four-month county jail sentence that could lead to his release in about 19months.
Defendants convicted of non-violent, nonserious and nonsexual crimes, like Roberts, will avoid a trip to San Quentin and other state institutions, said his lawyer, Kathleen Pozzi.
“Ryan was ecstatic,” said Pozzi, the county’s assistant public defender. “He’s a happy boy.”
What has been described as the biggest change to the county’s criminal justice system in a generation began Monday amid lingering concern about how local officials will handle the estimated hundreds of additional offenders entering the county system each year.
The new law, meant to ease prison crowding, requires those convicted of less-serious felonies to serve their time in county jails. It also transfers oversight of parolees being released from prison to county probation officials.
Those who violate parole will go to jail rather than returning to prison.
Bob Ochs, the county’s chief probation officer, said the first of an expected 20 parolees a month reported for post-release supervision Tuesday.
He said it is too soon to tell the long-term effects of the shift but said it’s possible the jail will have to open an unused wing and hire more correctional deputies to staff it.
Ochs said he’ll ask the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors for permission to hire additional probation officers and have one deputy assigned to his office to deal with a more serious population of offenders.
Although Gov. Jerry Brown has vowed to continue funding the realignment, Ochs said there is concern among counties given the state’s budget difficulties.
“There are so many unknowns,” Ochs said. “Over the next three to six months we will do a lot of analysis to see what’s happening to the system and plan for the years ahead.”
Capt. Randall Walker, head of jail operations, said realignment will add 230 to 300 inmates to the in-custody population over the next three years. With the main jail currently at capacity, any expansion of units would happen at the North County facility near the county airport, he said.
The amount of space available there would depend on the security risk of the inmates who are coming in, he said.
“It all depends on what they bring to the table,” Walker said. “A lot of it is wait and see. I think we’re pretty prepared for it.”
Total capacity for the county jail system is 1,476. The number of inmates in the system Tuesday was 987.
Unlike places like Los Angeles, where 150 police officers are being reassigned to assist the probation department, Sonoma County will only need the one deputy, Walker said, to handle newcomers.
“Our numbers pale in comparison to L.A.,” Walker said.
Just how realignment will affect what goes on in the courtroom was unclear. Prosecutors have said they will not base charging decisions on jail space.
However, defendants may be more likely to accept plea bargains if they don’t face prison, moving cases through the system quicker.
“It’s huge,” said defense attorney Rebecca Linkous. “I think it will cut down on congestion in the courts.”
The new law means people convicted of certain drug offenses and crimes, such as car theft, second-degree burglary and embezzlement under $100,000, will be sentenced to jail instead of prison.
Those convicted of crimes occurring after Oct. 1 will only serve half of their sentence, compared to two-thirds time for earlier offenders.
Defense attorneys said many of their clients postponed sentencing to Monday or later to take advantage of the new law and avoid prison, even if they have to serve slightly more time.
However, not all prefer jail over prison. All eligible offenders get half time in prison for good behavior and they can take advantage of state programs and things like conjugal visits that aren’t available in jail, Pozzi said.
That’s why the last defendant to be sentenced under the old law Friday didn’t postpone it, Pozzi said.
Johann Santos, 34, of San Francisco got three years in prison for possession of stolen property and burglary. He’ll be out in 18 months compared to 24months if he had been sent to county jail.
“He likes prison better,” Pozzi said. “But I would say a majority of my defendants are breathing a sigh of relief.”