By PAUL PAYNE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The diversion of state prisoners to county supervision has changed the culture in Sonoma County’s jail, making it more violent, while forcing the early release of petty criminals, Sheriff Steve Freitas said Wednesday.
Attacks on correctional deputies have increased 72 percent since the dramatic shift was instituted 12 months ago and fights between inmates are increasing, he said. However, he said he could not immediately provide specific data on the specific numbers of such incidents.
Over nine months ending in September, the jail released 231 people eligible for detention alternatives who were serving time for such offenses as drunken driving, drug use and theft, Freitas said.
“We’re getting more lower-level offenders out and more sophisticated offenders in,” he said.
But a year after the state implemented the legislation to cut prison crowding, any further assessment of the program is unclear. There’s a general sense that local officials can do a better job of supervising hundreds of parolees from prison. And millions of dollars have flowed from the state to pay for more deputies and probation officers.
But whether the so-called “realignment” will help improve a statewide criminal re-offense rate of about 70 percent is uncertain. It will take more time to compile and analyze those statistics, said Bob Ochs, the county’s chief probation officer.
“It seems to be going smoothly so far,” said Ochs, who heads the county’s oversight group.
Under the new law, “nonviolent, nonserious and nonsexual” criminals who normally would be sent to prison instead are sentenced to county jail. And people released from prison on parole are falling under county supervision.
Since Oct. 1, 2011, 186 people convicted of crimes once prison-worthy have been sent to the jail for sentences as long as eight years. The jail has a maximum capacity of 1,400 inmates and a current population of about 1,100.
And 303 people leaving prison have entered the county’s post-release supervision. Of those, 43 have re-offended and were sent to jail for 60 to 120 days, Ochs said.
To handle the increased caseload, the state paid the county an initial $3.6 million to hire extra deputies and probation officers and to open jail bed space and create a day reporting center. An additional $9.1 million is expected in the current fiscal year, which began July 1.
Things will continue on a steady course if the money keeps coming, Ochs said.
“If realignment is adequately funded, it could work,” he said. “We could have greater success than the prison system.”
But prison diversion has its critics. And many are skeptical about the state’s commitment to pay for it indefinitely.
District Attorney Jill Ravitch fears the elimination of prison reduces the incentive for some people to obey the law. Most felonies are no longer prison eligible and people sent to jail are serving half time because of a change in the way credits are accrued, she said.
Ravitch said it’s possible the new law could be the cause of a recent reported uptick in property crime.
“So people are back on the street pretty quickly,” Ravitch said. “It is frustrating to us in that we do not have the potential prison sentence in our toolbox any more when dealing with offenders we are trying to hold accountable.”
Freitas said that to ensure adequate bed space in the jail, he’s instituted an electronic monitoring program that allows him to release minor offenders early.
As of Wednesday, there were 56 people on home confinement, he said. Nearly half were convicted drunken drivers, about 20 percent were convicted of drug crimes and an additional 20 percent were charged in thefts.