Prison reform legislation short on money and ideas, Kern Co says

Photo by Marc Soller via Flickr.

Counties have no choice but to do things better than the state.

That’s what Kern County officials are saying as they prepare for an influx of low-level offenders from state prisons. They’re hoping to be more successful when it comes to helping offenders successfully integrate into society.

The U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its prison population, as overcrowding had resulted in poor medical care for inmates. In April, Gov. Jerry Brown responded by signing into law Assembly Bill 109, or The Public Safety Realignment Act. Under this law, 34,000 low-level offenders will be redirected to the counties over the next two years. Beginning Oct. 1, counties will be responsible for low-level offenders whose last committing charges were not for violent or sex-related crimes.

Kern County Chief Probation Officer David Kuge expects to get jurisdiction over 1,100 to 1,200 offenders who would otherwise have been sent to state prison. He said he understands the community’s concerns about public safety.

“Somebody could’ve committed a sex or violent offense, but went to prison this time on second-degree burglary, and they will be released back to us,” he said.

The county’s incarceration system will become a revolving door, he added, with overcrowding leading to early releases for inmates.

“I think it was a poorly written law because there are still a lot of questions unanswered,” Kuge said. “It’s going to increase the danger to the public because we just don’t have the resources to do what we need to do.”

Jim Waterman, director of Kern County Mental Health, said counties will end up just like the state — broke — if they don’t come up with appropriate support, including substance abuse programs, that will get prisoners back on their feet. The bill requires counties to use programs that have evidence to back up their effectiveness.

“We absolutely have to find rehabilitative programs that work and get people out of the criminal cycle,” he said.

The state is providing realignment funding to counties based on the number of low-level offenders they’ve sent to state prisons. Kern’s share is $10.8 million to start, then $14.7 million annually.

County leaders have been meeting to discuss how to parcel out this funding, though they’ll have to pare down their wish lists substantially to meet the limited budget. A 14-member committee with representatives from the Kern County Sheriff’s Department, probation, mental health, the district attorney’s office and more will vote on the plan Sept. 21, then send it to the county Board of Supervisors. Departments will re-evaluate their needs in the months following and alter plans accordingly.

Kuge said his department likely will need $7 million of the $14 million county allotment. The state has provided his department start-up funds to purchase vehicles and equipment. Kuge plans to increase the number of probation officers and staff, but the department’s ranks have dwindled over the past few years, and it’s uncertain whether new hires will ease the burden.

The main focus is providing programs in education, job readiness and substance abuse counseling. County departments plan to find contractors for these services where possible, and they’re open to partnering with religious organizations.

“Lots of these guys will come back to the community without a job, and we’ll try to get them prepared for that,” Kuge said. “And it’s not just finding a place, it’s getting them mentally prepared because they’re not used to getting up every day like you and I, getting to work on time, getting to work five days a week. It’s not just job placement, it’s job readiness.”

The sheriff’s department has asked for $5.2 million to roll out its plan in three phases, said Chief Deputy Kevin Zimmermann. First, the department will add 238 beds to the existing 2,400 beds at four jails, and use an electronic monitoring program, both funded with over $600,000 in startup funds from the state.

“We’re going to fill these 238 beds rather quickly, so we’re looking to move into other programs as soon as possible,” Zimmermann said.

In the second phase, which could start in late October or early November, the department will expand its work release program, where supervised offenders would report to work sites in the community. The department will create a day reporting center with assistance from community partners, where offenders would attend anger management classes and drug counseling. Officials are also interested in contracting with Cal Fire or creating a local version of fire camps to put offenders to work.

“County jails, historically, have not been in the behavior modification business beyond in-custody education programs with general education and anger management, so because of this new program, we’re going to explore all options,” Zimmermann added.

On the mental health side, Waterman said his department will start with existing substance abuse programs and other services, using its current network of contracted providers to serve Kern’s large geographic area. Care starts the moment the offender gets out of prison.

“We do a lot of practical support,” Waterman said. “When they arrive, they don’t have IDs or a place to stay. They burn their ties with family or their social support system, so we provide a lot of that up-front support so they can make it in the community.”

The department will try to gain as much funding as possible for substance abuse treatment and find ways to order individuals into such programs.

Another option is an early release program. An individual who’s getting substance abuse treatment in jail would be released with an electronic monitor, under the condition that he or she will participate in drug counseling.

The department is also trying to carve out funding for offenders with mental illnesses so severe that they can’t be kept in the prison’s general population. Those individuals are the most expensive to treat, Waterman said.

Mental health’s portion of funding has yet to be determined. Waterman’s requests exceed available dollars, and it will be difficult to decide where to cut. He doesn’t expect a flood of patients on Oct. 1, but he’s concerned about the burden on the county’s already strained mental health system.

“If you think about an additional 100 individuals coming out of prison with schizophrenia, that’s an unstable population, so I’m really thinking this is dramatically going to impact our treatment system,” he added. “We will continue to do the very best with the resources we have.”

Recidivism is especially high for offenders with mental illnesses, Waterman said.

“The common scenario for a mentally ill individual leaving prison is to be dropped off at a train station and given 200 bucks, and local drug dealers know when they’re getting dropped off,” Waterman said. “By the time they get to Bakersfield, they’ve already spent the money on drugs, and they’re back on the streets. It takes them a few days to recidivate and go back.”

“It’s not a pretty picture if your son is caught in this loop,” he said. “It’s pretty maddening.”

Dana Toyama, a spokesperson for the state prison system, said any convicted felons who are determined to be a Mentally Disordered Offender will still go to state prison. Counties will not be receiving this level of inmate. But Waterman said many inmates who fall short of this designation still have mental health issues that are an obstacle to their successful placement back in the community.

Note: An earlier version of this story said the state would be releasing 34,000 low-level inmates. Actually, responsibility for that many newly sentenced inmates will be transferred to the counties over the next two years.

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