Realignment results in lengthy jail sentences

Jail sentences as long as 23 years unintended consequence of prison reform

Photo: Marc Soller/Flickr.

By Minerva Perez
California Health Report

Javier Miranda was arrested last November while driving a truck full of methamphetamine up Interstate 5. After a short trial, he received an 18-year sentence – but he won’t go to prison. Instead, Miranda will serve his time in county jail.

The length of Miranda’s sentence is an unusual but not a unique result of prison “realignment.” Counties throughout California are now tasked with housing and rehabilitating prisoners classified as non-serious, non-violent and non-sexual, no matter the length of their sentence in their jail. Before realignment, prisoners like Miranda would likely have faced prison time.

“We are designed to be a holding facility,” said Merced County Sheriff Mark N. Pazin. “But because of AB 109, we are going to have to accommodate this person.”

Assembly Bill 109, also known as realignment, was signed into law last year as a way to reduce prison overcrowding. Lower-risk offenders, such as Miranda, are now sentenced to county jails rather than state prison to serve their time.

There is a difference between spending 18, seven or even two years in county jail as opposed to prison. Jails often lack the necessary resources for longer stays, such as medical care and other social services programs that help rehabilitate prisoners.

Scott Ball, chief probation officer and the head of the local Community Corrections Partnership, said at a March CCP meeting that there are no rehabilitation services to help offenders while they are in custody. Ball said he is working with Pazin to put some assistance in place, even if it is small.

“We are working to have a (probation) officer have carte blanche access to jail,” he said, “to meet with offenders and set them up with a plan for when they get out.” Eventually, he hopes to increase to two probation officers.

Merced County adopted the approach of alternative sanctions to manage low-level offenders, like electronic monitoring, home detention and re-entry courts with a heavy emphasis on rehabilitation rather than jail beds.

Still, those whose crimes warrant incarceration can be sentenced to county jail for 16 months to up to three years.

Miranda is the first person in Merced County to be handed such a long jail sentence.

Merced County Chief Deputy District Attorney Harold Nutt was the prosecutor in Miranda’s case and said the 18 years – four years for the principal charge, 10 for weight of drugs he was transporting (10 kilos), three years for a prior prison term for a similar drug-related offense and one year for a prior prison term – fit the crime.

Realignment, he said, took away a hammer that law enforcement once had to hold people accountable. Prison, he said, used to be a real threat to individuals looking to offend and re-offend. Without the option of prison, county jails will increasingly have to bear the burden of long sentences.

“This is highly unusual,” he said of Miranda’s 18 years in jail. But, he added, “It wouldn’t be inconceivable to sentence someone to seven or eight years. Realignment changed the way everybody looks at things.”

Merced is not the only county that has seen jail sentences of longer than a year. The longest in Contra Costa County so far is five years. In San Bernardino the longest sentence was 10 years, and in Riverside, 14 years. Santa Barbara County jail holds one inmate sentenced to 23 years.

Long jail sentences have mostly been in Southern California, said Pazin, who is also president of the California Sheriff’s Association. That area of the state also has the largest population, he noted.

How many years of their sentence that these inmates will actually serve behind bars depends on the respective county’s resources and realignment plan. Miranda is going to be in custody in Merced’s jail for at least two years, according to Antoinette Murillo, public information officer for Merced County Corrections Department.

He’ll spend another couple of years on electronic monitoring before going under the supervision of probation, she said. Miranda has a U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement hold, she noted, which also might affect what happens to him once he is released from jail.

Barely a year into realignment, multi-year sentencing is an unintended consequence of reform, Pazin said. He added that he and his colleagues hope to discuss the possibility of a legislative remedy to the problem with Gov. Jerry Brown in the future.

In the meantime, he said, “We are hoping that this won’t become a trend.”

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