Prison reform comes to Merced when jails are already full

Photo by Marc Soller via Flickr.

Merced County sees the October realignment of state prisoners into county supervision as a chance to try something different in their approach to crime prevention.

“Evidence-based practices show the more you do with lower-risk offenders the more damage you do,” said Scott Ball, chief probation officer and chair of the committee overseeing AB 109, the legislation mandating a historic shift in managing people convicted of non-violent crimes.

Like other jurisdictions in California, county officials in Merced are looking at AB 109, or prison realignment, as an opportunity to change corrections for the better. AB 109 was signed into law in April by Gov. Jerry Brown as a response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which called for California to reduce its prison population by 34,000. After Oct. 1, all non-serious, non-violent, non-sex offenders will be sentenced to county jails rather than state prison. Once current lower-risk inmates finish serving their time in state prison, they will come under the supervision of county probation rather than the state’s parole department.

Merced’s focus will shift from incarceration to treatment with low-level offenders. The local Community Corrections Partnership (CCP), the group of law enforcement and special services officials tasked with creating an implementation plan, advocates routing lower-risk offenders towards alternative sanction options such as electronic monitoring, behavior modification and treatment programs, and participation in specialized courts.

The county will see an additional 428 inmates in the next three years, 210 of whom will be released from prison to the probation department for supervision. The remaining “nons” will be sentenced locally. They will come to the county in phases, with 60 arriving between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31, followed by 55 from the new year into spring. After spring 2012, the county expects the inmate population to level off.

“The population of offenders from Merced County is not going to grow,” Ball said. “It’s not like this new population from another county or another jurisdiction are going to be in the county’s lap, these are people that are going to live in this county anyway.” Ball was responding, in part, to the impression that the county will be inundated with criminals. The increase in ex-inmates, he said, will be fairly small.

The alternative sanctions that the board recommended are targeted at rehabilitating offenders, but also help the county – there is no funding to keep putting people in jail.

Due to an $8 million shortfall in the department, the Merced County Sheriff has already been forced to divert all new bookings to a satellite jail instead of its main facility in the city and close a part of its jail.

Merced County Sheriff Mark N. Pazin was very helpful and generous in the planning process, Ball said.

“He could have come forward and said ‘well if we are going to need beds for this realigned population, save our jail,’ you know?” Ball said. “He didn’t do that, he stepped up and said, ‘if we are going to do alternative sanctions, we are going to need deputies.’”

Pazin said it didn’t make sense to keep low-level offenders locked up with more dangerous criminals and the costs – $45,000 a year per inmate – was stretching the department’s budget that is why he preferred alternative “sentencing,” as he refers to it model.

People who commit white collar crimes or crimes like burglary or auto theft should not be “placed in a jail with murderers and deviants,” he said. “Alternative sentencing would be more conducive to those type of offenders, not to mention save the taxpayers $45,000 a year.”

Pazin is president of the California State Sheriff’s Association and has worked with the state to ensure realignment goes smoothly, but said he and his colleagues understand there will be some hurdles ahead.

“My charge to our group is that we are prepared for October 1st but we will continue to re-evaluate as we move forward,” Pazin said.

The funding provided by legislation that accompanied realignment – $2.8 million for Merced County – will help fund a combination of alternative sentencing and corrections in the sheriff’s department, hire an additional five probation officers and will give probation enough money to do some contracting. Most of the budget is split evenly between probation and the sheriff’s department – $1.1 million to probation and $1.2 million to jails and programs like home monitoring. The remainder of the budget, $720,000, will go to treatment and services providers.

As an added measure to accountability, the C.C.P. also recommended creating a mental health court and re-entry court for ex-offenders who have violated the terms of their probation. These offenders would go to court on a regular basis and update on their progress and the services they receive.

The planned mental health and specialty courts will operate similarly to the existing drug courts, with some alterations, said Michael Pro, Merced County’s public defender. Offenders attend counseling, treatment, and come back periodically to update the court on their progress.

“Rather than a re-entry court, I more think of this as a progress court,” Ball said. “They are now going back to court for a little more attention for a more successful re-entry into the community.”

His clients stand to benefit from realignment, Pro said, because it provides them with alternatives to incarceration as well as resources to rehabilitate and more accountability.

“We here in the public defender’s office think we send too many people to prison,” he said. “People finally came to the realization that it’s not working, we are just warehousing people.”

The public defender’s department will also be taking on additional staff to handle the caseloads and court appearances with the money allocated to his department for realignment, Pro said.

The extra money from the state will also fund an expansion of services and increase the number of people referred into the Merced Day Reporting Center. Fifty people currently check into the reporting center every month, and after realignment the number is expected to increase by 15.

Expanding capacity will help more people change their behavior, said Kathy Prizmich, West Coast business development executive for BI Incorporated, the contractor for the reporting center.

“A lot of these offenders weren’t brought up to think like you and me,” Prizmich said, adding that the six to 12 month program also focuses on therapy to help ex-offenders take responsibility for their actions and lead a more honest life.

Merced County has invested in this type of reporting center since 2008, Prizmich said, an investment that will help ensure a smooth transition once realignment starts.

“They are progressive,” Prizmich said of Merced County. “They are ahead of the game.”

But only the offenders in need of all the services offered by the Day Reporting Center will be referred to that program. Others in need of specific services will be referred to county and local service providers as needed, including special courts.

Monika Grasley is executive director of Lifeline Community Development Corporation of Merced County, who along with colleagues from the education, religious, and health sector have a loose collaborative that refers ex-offenders to resources. The Re-Entry Assistance Program helps people getting out of jail find assistance with anything from how to find affordable housing, to G.E.D. information to finding a place of worship by making referrals through their extensive network.

“What will happen is that I will get a call they will say ‘hey I need a job, give me a job,’ well I don’t have a job who does? So I talk to them about the EDD office, the WorkNet office, I talk to them about college opportunities; we refer them to our representative from the college.” Grasley said.

She has been in touch with law-enforcement on an informal basis just to let them know R.A.P. is there if needed for those individuals that don’t qualify for the day center, Grasley said. She has also been trying to build new connections coordinate the 20 or so agencies that she already counts on to prepare for realignment.

“We don’t do anything for the folks, I don’t believe in handouts,” she said. “Our job is really to resource these people because no matter how much you invest into a community or into a specific group in the community if they don’t take a hold of if then nothing is going to change.”

Ball said he and the rest of the C.C.P. are hashing out the final details before they present the plan to the Merced County Board of Supervisors in September.

The funding made available to them is not going to be enough to do business as usual, Ball said, so they are looking very hard at what type of offender needs to be incarcerated, so that they don’t spend 60 -120 days in jail when five days will have the same impact.

“The best way to impact public safety is to either catch them with what they are doing or provide services to get them to stop what they are doing,” Ball said. “Jails and prisons just really don’t serve that purpose.”

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