By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County is set to spend nearly $3.4 million this budget year and add more than 21 probation, jail, health and counseling positions to deal with the new shift of some criminals and state parolees to county supervision.
The numbers are part of an interim spending plan approved Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors. It calls for 10 new jobs in the probation department and nine in the Sheriff’s Office, most of them sworn-officer positions. About 2½ jobs also would be added for mental health services, counseling and other social work related to inmates.
Supervisors approved six of the positions in August. The remainder were authorized Tuesday as part of the spending plan, which is intended to cover the cost of shifted public safety and criminal justice services for the next six to nine months.
By then, Sonoma County officials hope to have a better idea of the funding they might expect under the state’s realignment plan, which is diverting new criminals with low-level offenses to county jails and putting some newly released parolees under county supervision.
The law is meant in part to conform to a federal court order to end crowding in the state’s prisons. It would not result in any transfer of state prisoners to county jails, or in early release of prisoners, but would divert new, lower-level offenders who otherwise would face prison time or state-supervised parole.
Gov. Jerry Brown has promised counties will have the money they need to support the additional duties, though his move to lock in that funding remains tied up in a tax fight with Republican legislators.
Counties may force the issue with a ballot measure next November.
Those funding concerns aside, the shift that began in October appears to be moving forward without any major hitch, Sonoma County officials said Monday.
As of last week, 19 offenders who otherwise would have been sent to state prison were incarcerated in the county jail and 21 parolees were put under county supervision under the transition, a total on par with previous projections, officials said.
The offenders have been convicted of nonviolent, nonserious and nonsexual offenses. Almost all have been smoothly shifted into the local system, said Bob Ochs, Sonoma County’s chief probation officer, the county official overseeing the transition.
The one exception was a state prisoner who did not report to local authorities within two days of his release, as required, Ochs said.
“The main takeaway so far is the system is working,” he said.
As part of the interim plan, officials have proposed reopening a 40- to 60-bed unit of the North County Detention Facility, an offshoot of the main jail. That will allow more room to accommodate an inmate population expected to grow by up to 230 offenders under the shift.
Sheriff Steve Freitas said the jail system has a current population of 996 and space for about 350 more inmates.
The peak number of parolees expected to come under county supervision in the shift is 164, Ochs said.
For the probation department and Sheriff’s Office, the job additions are forcing a quick pivot following three consecutive years of job cuts and layoffs.
Freitas said the additions to his office, including four correctional deputies, a correctional sergeant and a deputy sheriff-detective to support probation work, were “significant.”
“But it still doesn’t get us to where we were two years ago,” he said.
For Ochs, the additions include eight probation officers. The remaining additions, in the health department, will support psychiatry, social work and counseling for offenders.
Without future action, most of the new jobs would end in mid-2016. Some would be filled immediately and others would be added as the county ramps up staffing connected with realignment.
The staffing and services connected to the shift have not drawn on the county’s general fund budget. Ochs said he expected more state cash for the effort next fiscal year, saying it could be up to $7 million for Sonoma County, depending on state tax revenues.
The extra funding could support other related programs and jobs that weren’t funded this year, Ochs said.
County officials have proposed holding about $258,000, or 7 percent of this year’s projected funds of $3.6 million in reserve to cover unanticipated costs.
The cautious approach stems from the funding shortfall local governments have faced since a similar state-to-county shift in health and human services began in 1990, said Supervisor Valerie Brown.
“It caused us to realize that over the last 21 years, the monies that were given to us have not met the caseloads and not met the needs of today’s population,” said Brown, a former state assemblywoman.
She described a ballot measure that counties are hoping to put before voters next year that would establish a guaranteed funding stream for the shifted services. The same tactic has been used to lock in money for public education and health services, though the state has raided those funds in recent years to fill budget deficits, setting off legal battles.
Brown said counties have no choice but to seek the same protection.
“Our worry is always the numbers,” she said. “We just want to make sure that the funding accompanies the job we have to do.”