Law agencies face monumental task with prison realignment

COAST CITIES — Juggling increased and unprecedented responsibilities, San Diego County’s probation and Sheriff’s departments, the District Attorney’s office and local law enforcement agencies are working to minimize the state’s prison realignment legislation’s effects on public safety and eventually reduce recidivism for low-level criminals.

“The realignment of state prisoners to county control is a significant public safety risk to our community,” said Chairman Greg Cox of the San Diego Board of Supervisors at the State of the County Address on Feb. 13. “There are people on our streets who, frankly, shouldn’t be there.”

But, as many authorities have acknowledged, the county does not have a choice whether or not to implement the new laws, and as such must do the best it can to manage a considerably greater population of offenders in jail custody and under probation supervision.

“Over the years, San Diego County has had to deal with all sorts of problems dumped on us by Sacramento. We’ve handled those problems and we’ll deal with this one as well,” said Cox in his speech.

“I have confidence in our collaboration. I have confidence in our realignment plan,” said Chief Probation Officer Mack Jenkins about how various county offices have been working together to carry out the new correctional laws.

Realignment Legislation and How It Works

Passed in 2011 and put into effect on Oct. 1, 2011, state assembly bills (AB) 109 and 117 aim to prevent low-level criminals from cycling in and out of state prisons and reduce the number of inmates in California’s 33 overcrowded prisons by June this year.

To achieve this, the realignment legislation shifted a range of state correctional responsibilities to the county. It created a new status for felony offenders who committed non-violent, non-serious, and non-sexual crimes, calling these individuals Post Release Offenders (PROs). This new group is now designated to serve their sentences in county jails instead of state prisons and be supervised by county probation instead of state parole after their release.

Though not the case with the majority of PROs, realignment has enabled an earlier release into the community for some offenders. While the majority of these offenders still spend their full sentences in custody, a small percentage are designated to spend part of their sentences under mandatory supervision while living in the community. Furthermore, offenders who violate the terms of their supervision can now only be sent to jail for up to 180 days when they used to be returned to prison.

“(Realignment has) brought to light a need for us to do better than the state has done,” said Commander Will Brown of the San Diego Sheriff’s Department.

The San Diego County probation department supervised 2,375 PROs during realignment’s first year from October 2011 to September 2012, far greater than 2,000 offenders that the state estimated for the county, according to a status update from the probation department.

Of the county’s 1921 PROs in January 2013, most serving sentences for drug/alcohol or property offenses, according to probation department data.

But while realignment aims to target low-level offenders, some PROs may have histories of more serious and violent offenses, said Jenkins.

Now accountable for an expansive newfound group of criminal offenders, the county’s law enforcement agencies and District Attorney’s office have had to allocate extensive resources to understanding the new laws, training, developing new procedures, and creating new programs.

The state and county, through approval from the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, have provided the sheriff’s and probation departments with funds to handle the greater number of offenders in jail and under probation supervision.

Increased Jail Inmate Population

Under realignment, county jails are now holding low-level felons that previously would have served their sentences in state prisons.

“The (offenders) that are sentenced under AB 109 are staying with us longer and are staying with us locally,” said Brown.

Prior to realignment, San Diego’s county jails held offenders for short periods for infractions, misdemeanors, and as a condition of probation. Jails also held offenders temporarily as they awaited court procedures or transfer to prison.

At that time, the jails had approximately 15 percent or more capacity available and did not face inmate population issues, according to Brown.

Now, the sheriff’s department manages more offenders than the jails have capacity to hold.

“(Realignment) forced us to really look at how we managed populations over longer periods of time when jails weren’t designed to handle that,” Brown said. “We make room in the jails for the people who need to be in jail and would pose a risk to the public if they were released into the community.”

The new 400-bed jail currently being built in Otay Mesa, which Cox mentioned in his State of the County Address, is intended to help with the increased inmate population.

Assessment and Reentry Programs for Offenders

To manage the offenders in the county’s jails and better prepare them for probation, the sheriff’s department created the Reentry Services Division in December 2012. The new division evaluates the offenders’ needs for post-release services, including alcohol and drug addition services and educational classes, as well as assesses their risk of committing a new crime while the offenders are still in jail custody.

The sheriff’s and probation departments also created the County Parole and Alternative Custody Unit in July 2012. This unit recommends low-risk offenders to serve part of their sentences in the community instead of in jail through mandatory supervision with GPS monitoring and required participation in certain reentry programs.

Once offenders are released from jail, they are now sent to the Community Transition Center, which was just opened last month. The center continues the work started by the Reentry Services Division by creating case plans for PROs and putting them in touch with resources for their period of probation supervision.

“The first 48 hours after someone leaves a prison or a jail is key,” said Jenkins. “It’s a matter of keeping them engaged (in probation services).”

Managing New Offenders Out in the Community

With realignment, the sheriff’s department, the probation department, and local law enforcement agencies have had to shoulder the responsibility of supervising thousands of PROs living in the community.

Within the first eight months of realignment, the number of high-level offenders under the probation department’s supervision almost doubled, Jenkins said.

As a result, law enforcement officials have had to train on how to handle PROs, who are more criminally sophisticated than offenders normally released to probation, according to Jenkins.

“We’re trying to increase officers’ skills so they can deal with the higher level of criminal sophistication but can also reduce the rate of recidivism,” he explained.

The probation department has hired new officers and created whole new post release unit.

Probation has assigned one officer for every 40 PROs, while one officer is assigned for every 60 high-risk probationers who are not PROs, according to Jenkins.

“We’re prioritizing the supervision of the post-release offenders,” he said.

Alternative custody staff from the sheriff’s department have undergone training for new techniques on interacting with PROs, and periodically conduct “knock and talk” check ups on PROs within the community.

Impact on Local Law Enforcement

Local law enforcement agencies outside of the sheriff’s department are also collaborating with the probation department in order to keep an eye on the PROs within their jurisdictions.

As of this month, Oceanside had 95 PROs residing within it, said Oceanside Police Department Captain Ray Bechler.

While probation officers are primarily responsible for supervising PROs, Oceanside police officers help keep track of those individuals by periodically driving past their residences and managing data on when PROs engage in criminal activity.

The department has had to train its officers on new procedures and strategies for encountering PROs out in the field, and unlike the probation department has not received any additional funding, according to Bechler.

“Now we have 95 new residents that have a history of criminal activity,” he said. “It’s a drain on our resources, but it’s one we can’t let go of. We have to manage these folks.”

DA’s Realignment Role

The DA’s office also plays a major role in implementing the new correctional legislation.

The office created a new unit for PRO dealings without any new funding or hiring new staff, said Deputy DA Lisa Rodriguez.

“This law is so different from anything else we’ve ever seen. It starts at the beginning of the criminal justice system all the way to post release,” she said. “It’s kind of like probation on steroids.”

Working to be judicious about jail space while still enacting appropriate consequences for criminals, the DA’s office spent months understanding and analyzing the law, and held new trainings for its attorneys.

Collaborating with other law enforcement agencies, the DA’s office just created a separate court in January specifically for offenders whose sentences include mandatory supervision after their release from jail. The court strives to better hold offenders accountable after their release while they remain under probation supervision and also help offenders access the support services they need once released.

Realignment’s Effect on Recidivism and Public Safety

Ultimately, realignment aims to reduce recidivism with PROs and therefore enhance public safety. Yet authorities say that the initial data on these matters is incomplete and so it is too early on to determine the new legislation’s effect on San Diego.

Brown said that one of the biggest challenges of realignment has been implementing so many new programs and strategies without having data to show whether any of it is effective in reducing recidivism.

“All this we are doing around reentry and realignment is about reducing recidivism. Right now we have to be patient to see if it’s working,” he said.

“I think the data that we have collected is still too new,” said Bechler. But he conceded, “From a common sense stand point, you have 95 new residents of criminal element type, you take them into the community, there is some crime up tick.”

About 24 percent of the PRO population has committed new felonies while out in the community under probation supervision so far, said Jenkins.

In realignment’s first year, there were 1,835 arrests made for incidents of probation violations among the 2,375 PROs in the county at that time.

“Obviously our goal is to not have any arrests, but that’s not realistic. But it’s in the ballpark of where we thought it would be at this time,” he said. “I caution the public that even with the best plans and the greatest collaboration, some times those individuals (PROs) don’t take advantage of the opportunities provided to them and crimes do occur.”

He added that all new correctional programs have required time before producing the intended reduction of recidivism, and realignment is no different.

Now that the second year of realignment is underway, he said, “I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to see similar recidivism reduction in holding (offenders) accountable and keeping them engaged in rehabilitative services.”

 

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