Merced County sees more low-level offenders than expected

By Minerva Perez, the California Health Report

One California county needed to make some quick adjustments to accommodate the low-level offenders newly under their supervision since last year, when prison realignment started.

Merced County has seen about 30 percent more offenders than the California Department of Corrections originally estimated, said Scott Ball, the county’s chief probation officer. They expected 73 inmates but got 116 people during the first four months of realignment.

“I don’t think they (CDCR) realized,” Ball said of the discrepancy. CDRC didn’t account for the Post Release Community Supervision (PRCS), people who would have been released to parole before realignment, Ball said.

Assembly Bill 109, commonly referred to as “prison realignment,” was signed into law in April 2011 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. Beginning in October, all non-serious, non-violent, non-sex offenders were sentenced to county jails rather than state prison.

Once current lower-risk inmates complete their state prison time, they come under county probation’s supervision rather than the state’s parole department.

Ball said he had to remove the probation officer assigned to the Merced County Gang Task Force to accommodate the higher-than-expected number of people newly under his supervision. That was “a hard decision to make,” he said, as gang activity is increasing in Merced.

This and other effects of realignment were discussed at the quarterly meeting of the local Community Corrections Partnership last month, a group of law enforcement and special services officials who created the AB 109 implementation plan.

Jeff Kettering, assistant chief probation officer, reported that the county will continue to see more offenders in the first six months than originally estimated.

Twenty one percent of the 116 offenders released to probation instead of parole have already returned to jail: nine for bench warrants, six for drug violations and six under “flash incarceration.”

Flash incarceration to the county jail has a maximum confinement time of 10 days without judicial review. Proponents say flash incarceration is a way to avoid lengthy periods of confinement for minor infractions of the terms of probation.

The other feature of realignment, sentencing low-level offenders to county jails rather than prison, has not had a dramatic impact on probation.

Only four more low-level offenders have been sentenced locally than the estimated 44. Of those offenders, 30 received “split” sentences (half jail time half probation) and 18 received a straight jail sentence.

The longest sentence was for 18 years for drug trafficking. Javier Miranda pled to transporting almost 40 pounds of methamphetamine and had already served prison time for a similar charge, said Merced County Chief Deputy
District Attorney Harold Nutt.

“He did receive 18 years in prison,” Nutt said, “Unfortunately, the legislature changed the law so that he is allowed to serve his time locally.”

Overall, the county’s approach is focused on alternative sentencing and services rather than additional jail beds. Local social justice groups have praised them for that approach.

“We are excited about the potential AB 109 holds for us to make changes to recidivism,” Pam Whalen, criminal justice organizer for the ACLU said at the partnership meeting.

Whalen recently gathered a group of residents and activists to come up with ideas about how the county can implement effective alternatives to prison. They discovered that a few of their ideas were already in the plan, such as mental health services.

Among the working group’s suggestions were peer support groups, transportation and parenting programs for offenders.

“We are excited about the Merced plan, Whalen said, “and we look forward to pushing forward in the right direction.”

With the funding that accompanied realignment – $2.8 million for Merced County – $720,000 will go toward treatment and services. The county expanded the services of the Merced Day Reporting Center so the center can serve 65 people as opposed to the usual 50 but the larger programs and alternative sanctions such as a mental health court should start next month

Ball said it will take a year to measure whether or not the alternative sanctions are actually preventing people from committing more crimes. But he and other law enforcement officials believe it’s the right path.

“People are going to be doing less time,” he said. “If they are receiving better services they are going to be re-offending less.”

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