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Cmdr. Will Brown, left, and Chief Probation Officer Mack Jenkins, right, presents an update about the county’s implementation of the state’s prison realignment before the County Board of Supervisors at their Sept. 24 meeting. Photo by Rachel Stine
Cmdr. Will Brown, left, and Chief Probation Officer Mack Jenkins, right, presents an update about the county’s implementation of the state’s prison realignment before the County Board of Supervisors at their Sept. 24 meeting. Photo by Rachel Stine
Rancho Santa Fe Lead Story

County juggles overcrowded jails, other hurdles in year two of prison realignment

REGION — “It’s sobering to see where we are two years after the implementation of this,” said County Board of Supervisors Chair Greg Cox about the implementation of the state’s Public Safety Realignment. 

With the two-year anniversary of prison realignment’s implementation on the horizon, county officials are grappling to manage overcrowded jails and an increase in crime.

“We’ve taken the bull by the horns…realizing that public safety is at stake here,” said Sheriff Bill Gore during an update about realignment before the County Board of Supervisors at its Sept. 24 meeting.

While the county’s Probation Department, Sheriff’s Department, District Attorney’s Office, and Public Defender’s Office were commended for working collaboratively to handle the multitude of responsibilities shifted from the state to the county with Assembly Bill (AB) 109, officials cautioned that there are public safety challenges at hand and more to come.

“I don’t want the public to think this is a big success story. It’s not,” said Supervisor Dianne Jacob.

The inmate population in the county’s seven jails has been on the rise since the implementation of AB 109, which mandated that lower-level felons would serve their sentences in county jails instead of state prisons.

At the beginning of September, the number of county inmates exceeded the region’s jail capacity by several hundred inmates. County detention facilities held 5,848 inmates on Sept. 3, surpassing the jails’ 5,522-inmate cap.

“Despite measures we have taken, we are out of bed space,” said Cmdr. Will Brown from the Sheriff’s Department.

Not only are more inmates serving their sentences in county custody, more inmates are serving longer sentences in county jail facilities, which were not designed to hold inmates long-term.

Brown mentioned that there is currently one inmate who is serving a 16-year sentence in a San Diego County jail.

Before realignment was implemented on Oct. 1, 2011, the county’s jail population was about 4,600 inmates.

With over a thousand more inmates in county custody today, jail operations have been impacted heavily.

The cost of operating the jails has increased and staff resources are stretched, according to Brown.

“It is a tremendous strain on the staff, but we’re making it work,” Brown said.

He also mentioned that with more inmates in the crowded jail facilities, the county is more exposed to potential litigation from inmates.

Officials have also noted an influx of crime since realignment took effect.

“Prisoner realignment continues to be a threat to public safety,” stated San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.

Drug and property crimes increased in 2012, and the District Attorney’s Office has seen a 20 percent increase in cases, she said.

Gore, however, said that he was not confident that crime rose in San Diego County specifically because of AB 109, seeing as crime rose across the entire country in 2012, not just in California.

But Dumanis explained, “Offenders are spending less time in custody and more time in our community with fewer consequences if they offend.”

She was referring to the sentence reductions and alternative custody measures that have been utilized over the past two years.

During the presentation, Supervisor Ron Roberts asked her, “In essence, we’re putting people through the system quicker?”

Dumanis affirmed this, replying, “Because of the law (AB 109), not because of what we’re doing (at the county).”

To address the continuous consequences of AB 109, county officials are still developing new tools and techniques to better manage its inmate populations and reduce recidivism.

The Board of Supervisors approved a request for a new data collection and reporting system, known as an Evidence-Based Practices System, that would allow the court, the Sheriff’s Department, the Probation Department, the County Health and Human Services Agency, and other public safety officials to collect information about offenders and share that information instantaneously with other agencies.

They also granted funding for a new AB 109 Housing Program that would enable county officials to connect offenders with transitional housing for up to 12 months after they are released from jail.

“Housing instability increases the likelihood of recidivism,” said Chief Probation Officer Mack Jenkins.

He cited that as of July 12, 2013, 19 percent of San Diego’s realigned offenders did not have a permanent home.

The Housing Program intends to increase offenders’ abilities to meet their conditions of probation and gain reliable income.

The county is already in the process of building a brand new women’s jail facility and an expansion to the East Mesa Detention Facility to increase its inmate capacity. The new women’s jail will include 255 more beds than the current detention facility; and the East Mesa expansion will add another 400 beds to the facility. Both are anticipated to be finished in summer 2014.

Furthermore, the Sheriff, District Attorney, Public Defender and other criminal justice agencies are scheduled to come back before the Board of Supervisors within 90 days with a program designed to better manage jail populations.

Though Gov. Jerry Brown still has not reduced the state prison population to the cap set by a panel of federal judges in 2009 that led to the passing of AB 109, he has not proposed sending more inmates from prisons to county custody.

But the Board of Supervisors still called for the state to support counties with needed funds and resources as they deal with AB 109.

Authorities expressed concern that they do not know how much state funding to expect for 2014-15 to support the county’s continued implementation of AB 109.

Supervisor Jacob said that despite how successfully the county’s criminal justice agencies have handled implementing realignment, at its core, AB 109 is still poor legislation. She added that it should be the state’s responsibility to fund it.

“To me, you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig. To me, AB 109 is still bad legislation,” she said. “They (the state) need to pay the bill.”