AB 109 DECEPTION: Is the state dumping dangerous offenders at our doorstep?

By Alex MacLean, The Union Democrat

Probation and law enforcement officials say many of the supposedly "non-violent, non-serious and non-sex offenders" recently transferred to California counties under the state's "prison realignment" plan are nothing of the sort.While the inmates' current convictions generally fit that description, past crimes committed by some of these offenders have ranged from violent assaults to sexual offenses.The prisoner transfer is being carried out under the 2011 Public Safety Realignment Act, AB 109, which some experts are calling disorganized and misleading. The act took effect Oct. 1.Legislators proposed AB 109 in response to a 2010 federal court order requiring the state reduce the population in its overcrowded prisons.About 150,000 inmates were housed in the state's 33 prisons, designed for a capacity of about 80,000. The court said this was cruel and unusual punishment, an opinion later affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court. California Department ofCorrections and Rehabilitation officials say the state's options were to build more prisons, release inmates early without supervision, or institute realignment. Passed by the Legislature in March and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown the following month, the Realignment Act shifted the burden of monitoring a population of former prisoners to counties, while also changing the sentencing guidelines for certain crimes and parole revocations so offenders are sent to county jails rather than state prisons. State Legislators representing the Mother Lode all voted against the bill. Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, said she saw issues with the legislation, which are now being confirmed in her discussions with county officials. "County officials in my district say they are seeing far more prisoners with serious pasts coming through their probation departments than expected," she said. "They also have no guarantee they will receive enough money to keep up those probation services and keep offenders behind bars." Since realignment took effect in October, the prison population has been reduced by about 14,000 and the state is on track to meet its goal of reducing the total population to 110,000 inmates by May 2013, according to Corrections Department spokeswoman Dana Toyama. Toyama acknowledged the shift was "unprecedented" and said the state is working to remedy concerns raised by counties early in the program. "This involves every aspect of CDCR and every way we handle our inmates, so it wasn't going to be seamless," she said.PROBATION The Tuolumne County Probation Department currently monitors 16 former prisoners on "post-release community supervision." About half of those former inmates have records with serious or violent prior convictions and all have previously been supervised on probation, according to statistics provided by the department. "We're dealing with pretty hardcore offenders now," said Dan Hawks, manager of Tuolumne County Probation's Adult Supervision Unit. One former inmate is a registered sex offender and was released from prison to the care of the county after AB 109 took effect because his most recent prison term was for a violation the state deemed as a non-violent, non-serious and non-sexual offense. "It's pretty arbitrary the way they classify these non-non-nons," Hawks said. "How it was sold to the public was one thing that made me angry about the statute." Hawks said the prospect of supervising these parolees with more-serious criminal pasts has forced the department to re-evaluate how it operates, which includes potentially arming probation officers. Chief Probation Officer Adele Arnold will go before the county Board of Supervisors at Tuesday's meeting to seek support for arming up to three officers, one of whom would be a backup, according to meeting documents. The armed probation officers would be accompanied by a sheriff's deputy as part of a special enforcement team responsible for monitoring high-risk offenders under intensive supervision, the documents said. Probation officials have also been dealing with mistakes made by the state, such as misdirected cases and low-ball projections of the number of inmates being released, Hawks said. He said the county probation department has rejected three cases because the state mistakenly sent former inmates with serious or violent convictions to the county's care. Seven other former inmates were supposed to be sent to other counties, including Tulare, Sonoma and San Joaquin. Hawks said the probation department receives packets featuring background information about inmates set for release to the county. The packets help probation officers identify appropriate programs and treatment, but they have also helped the department catch mistakes that slipped through the cracks. The CDCR says it aims to send the packets to county probation departments at least 120 days before an inmate is released, but Hawks said that is not always the case. "I'd say it happens about 50 percent of the time at best," he said. "We've gotten some as same-day notices that are getting out the next day." Hawks added that state officials have been working closely with counties to address these problems. Probation departments have weekly conference calls with CDCR to discuss realignment and liaisons have been placed at each of the state's 33 prisons. They are assigned to communicate with counties receiving inmates from the institutions. "The state is aware of the problems and they're trying to fix it," he said. Hawks said the county's probation department has been taking the necessary steps to ensure the public stays safe during this transition. But one offender has already violated post-release community supervision for being convicted of a new crime. Another absconded, but was later picked up by authorities in San Joaquin County, he said. The county has used its realignment money to hire two more probation officers and set up a day-reporting center housed in a new facility on Highway 49, in Sonora, to help keep track and, hopefully, rehabilitate this new population of offenders. The reporting center is the first of its kind in the county and requires the "high-risk" probationers who are likely to re-offend to check in frequently, submit to breathalyzers and drug tests, and take behavioral modification classes each week. The department also plans to implement substance abuse and education programs for offenders in its alternative day jail, and an electronic ankle monitoring system, Hawks said. Hawks doesn't blame the CDCR for any of the issues along the way and said he believes counties are likely going to prove more effective at monitoring these higher-risk probationers. He said the main supervising parole agent for the county used to handle about 100 cases at a time. He said all of those under post-release community supervision have been on probation before, which gives the county probation officers an edge because there's a history they can consult to determine how to best supervise each offender. "These people have been here on and off anyway, because they live here," he said. "In a lot of ways, we are better equipped to deal with them than a parole officer in Modesto. We're a library of knowledge on these people." Calaveras County Chief Probation Officer Teri Hall has also been optimistic about the prospect of the county taking on some responsibilities formerly handled by the state, despite facing criticism from Calaveras County law enforcement officials. She said one case was mishandled by the CDCR because it didn't fit the profile of a non-serious, non-violent and non-sexual offender. The mistake was caught before the inmate was released. Another potential probationer eligible for community supervision in Calaveras County previously served eight years in prison for stabbing a guard eight times with a pencil. He will be monitored by the county rather than the state because a recent prison term was for parole violation, Hall said. Hall said she thinks the county programs are going to prove more effective than state parole because the rules are stricter and the requirements more intensive. "We've polled a few who have said they would rather be on parole," she said.LAW ENFORCEMENT While probation does its best to keep the influx of former prisoners in order, local law enforcement shoulders the burden of catching, prosecuting and jailing those who re-offend. AB 109 made certain felonies eligible only for sentences in county jail that formerly would have given an offender a ticket to prison. Some of the crimes no longer eligible for prison time include commercial burglary, manufacturing methamphetamine and felony child abuse. Tuolumne County Sheriff Jim Mele said he recently attended a conference in Ventura with other sheriffs around the state and said many blamed realignment for a recent surge of burglaries in their respective counties. Another potential problem facing the county is where it will house new offenders who can't be sent to prison, Mele said. About 12 to 15 offenders in Tuolumne County who would've otherwise gone to prison have been sentenced to lengthy terms in county jail since October. Their terms range anywhere from 16 months to seven years, according to statistics provided by the county's probation department. The Tuolumne County Jail is nearly at capacity with 137 beds occupied out of 140 as of Feb. 8. It was never intended for keeping inmates locked up several years at a time, Mele said. The state has also made it clear that a new jail for the county is low on its priority list to receive funding. Mele said he's concerned because the county is essentially guaranteed AB 109 funding while Brown is in office, but a permanent plan to pay for the costs has yet to be legislated. Brown has proposed a ballot initiative that would increase taxes on those making $1 million or more and would funnel money to counties for realignment expenses. "He's playing Russian roulette with the public," Mele said. Hawks and other probation officials are optimistic about the future as long as the state keeps dedicating an appropriate amount of money to counties each budget year to cover realignment expenses. The increased supervision and new programs with the additional officers and day-reporting center would all go away without the state's financial support, Hawks said. "If the money goes away we'd have to absorb those into our existing probation and supervision caseloads and they aren't going to get the same level of attention they get now," he said. Brown has stated he will veto any attempt to divert money from the counties intended for realignment and his proposed initiative would make funding the program a constitutional amendment, according to Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer. Tuolumne County District Attorney Michael Knowles said realignment has caused his office to re-evaluate the way it handles certain cases now that the threat of imprisonment for a number of crimes has been eliminated. The fact that there is little room left in jail to incarcerate people for minor crimes means fewer low-level offenders will see the inside of a cell, Knowles said. "If there ever was a time for us to look out for our neighbor it's now because we are changing how our community responds to certain crimes," he said. "Just putting people in jail is not an option anymore." One of the most outspoken critics of both the law and the way Calaveras County is implementing it has been the county sheriff, Gary Kuntz. Most of the $475,000 the county is set to receive would go to the Probation office to set up a day-reporting center under the county's current plan. Kuntz said he would like about $169,000 to hire two new deputies to help apprehend those who don't comply with the supervision program. "We don't have the resources to constantly go out and look for these people, but we don't want them out in the streets terrorizing neighborhoods and committing all kinds of crimes," he said. Kuntz said he "practically begged" the county Board of Supervisors to let the Sheriff's Department take the lead in the county's Community Corrections Partnership, which are committees formed by AB 109 comprised of local representatives from probation, law enforcement, courts and social services. These committees are tasked with formulating a plan to implement the law and divide the money given for realignment costs. The county's probation department was ultimately selected to lead and has been facing opposition from Kuntz and other law enforcement officials for its latest implementation plan approved by a 4-3 vote in January. "I thought probation was doing good with the local people, but we're more equipped to deal with these hardcore offenders," Kuntz said. Calaveras County District Attorney Barbara Yook said she supports the idea of having a day-reporting center, but also thinks money should be dedicated to those tasked with apprehending offenders who don't comply. She said state parole was skilled at conducting field supervision and tracking down parolees when they violated, which she sees as a void in the county's current supervision plan. "It is unfair to the public, unfair to the Sheriff's Office and unfair to the police," she said.

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The Union Democrat
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