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Changing California’s prison population

on October 3, 2011

Continued overcrowding in California’s state prisons brought about a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that the state’s efforts to cram in more prisoners constituted cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

The state responded with legislation that shifts responsibility for state parolees to counties and redefines what constitutes a prison-worthy offense.

That realignment started Saturday. It continues for the next two years as the state tries to reduce its prison population by about 110,000 prisoners to 137.5 percent of capacity.

From Oct. 1 to June 2012, Contra Costa County will take the reins on roughly 215 parolees, while prisons will take fewer offenders for specific crimes.

“It’s a county responsibility now,” said Contra Costa County Probation Officer Philip Kader.

The plan does not release state inmates into the general population, or transfer them to county jails. It does, however, place responsibility on counties for state inmates who are eligible for parole, including housing them in cases of parole violations.

But these parolees won’t be on “parole,” technically. Instead, they will be on “post-release community supervision,” which, Kader said, isn’t much different than probation.

The shift of offenders is slated to occur over the next few years, but the other half of the state’s legislation, AB 109, is the men and women it will prevent from going to state prison.

Criminals will have to be accused of certain crimes in order for local courts to send them to state prison. Non-violent, non-high-risk-sexual offenders and non-serious convicts will, after Oct. 1, be jailed in county.

“The people coming out of prison, or that we will no longer be able to send to prison, are based off a slew of cases of law violations that would be considered one of those three categories,” Kader said.

The list of crimes that merit state prison time range from the expected, such as vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, to the uncommon, like possession or importation of horsemeat.

For instance, the robbery of a person without physical assault or a weapon wouldn’t constitute a prison-worthy crime, but with a weapon it would, Kader said.

Problems with AB 109 on a local level range from its implementation to the impact returning “non-non-non” parolees could have on communities.

“We also see that despite the fact that a lot of these individuals are classified as ‘non-non-nons’… that doesn’t mean that their criminal history isn’t extensive and that it may not have involved violent, serious or sex crimes,” said Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus. “It’s just the controlling crime that they were actually convicted on, that they went to prison on, is one of those ‘nons.’

“It’s just a reality that plea bargaining occurs.”

Magnus said that just a small number of “non-non-non” offenders could cause larger problems for law enforcement.

“Sometimes as few as one or two key folks who are returning to the community can play a very destructive role, whether it’s starting up sort of a retaliatory activity or shootings or other kinds of problems,” Magnus said.

Beyond the possibility of increased street violence is the issue of funding. To help counties cope with AB 109’s changes, California will dole out more than $350 million.

Contra Costa County’s share is about $4.5 million from Oct. 1, 2011, to June 31, 2012. Magnus, Kader and several other county officials comprise an executive board designed to divide up the state money, nearly half of which will go to the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department.

Mike Casten, the county undersheriff, said that most of that money will go to preparing detention facilities for the projected influx of inmates.

“In the short term, it’s just opening up the bed space,” Casten said. “We have the capacity; it’s just getting everything up and running.”

Contra Costa County has three adult detention facilities: Martinez, West County in Richmond, and Marsh Creek in Clayton.

In the West County Detention Facility, Building 7 lies half empty; at Marsh Creek, a free-standing building is also empty, though it hasn’t been used in years. Each side of Building 7 can hold 119 people, though it needs sundry items, toiletries for prisoners like soap, toothbrushes, etc., before prisoners can move in.

Both Building 7 and Marsh Creek will require renovation and certification, but what’s more expensive is the manpower needed.

“[Building 7] requires us to have five more deputy sheriffs being paid for, for that half of the building,” Casten said, adding Marsh Creek was similar in staffing needs. “That’s a deputy sheriff 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Kader, too, plans on hiring probation caseworkers whose responsibilities will eventually be to manage solely AB 109 offenders.

The issue concerning most county officials, though, is long-term funding.

Kader said that the new AB 109 case managers will have about 40-50 cases, a number he said is ideal in terms of caseload efficiency.

But other caseworkers in the county handle between 120-150 cases apiece, he said, and about half of the approximately 3,500 cases are banked, which means agents have few or no requirements of the offender.

Add that on top of the homeless and transitional housing, drug and alcohol in-patient and out-patient services, and other services (AB 109 offenders will receive preferential services, Kader said), and the money begins to spread thin.

“Many of the principles behind realignment are good,” Magnus said. “Local and county government can probably do a better job working with this population and helping them make a transition away from crime and back into the community in a more meaningful way. I’m not sure that any of that happens without resources.”

Magnus described the level of resources coming from the state as “pretty marginal,” and Kader and Casten expressed similar sentiments.

They point to the formula by which California legislators based the amount of money each county received.

The formula, devised by the California State Association of Counties, gives weight to a county’s average daily population (ADP), which is based on how many single inmates were in one bed or alternative custody program for one year added to one probationer or parolee on probation or parole for one year.

Kader said that Contra Costa County courts have historically tried to deal with its convicted criminals locally rather than send all or most of them to state prisons. Alternatively, other counties might opt to send all serious convictions to state penitentiaries.

Take Tulare County, the ADP of which is 978. Contra Costa County’s is 477. Although Contra Costa County has a population (ages 18-64) of 655,364, and Tulare has a population of 247,996, Tulare County is set to receive a higher percent of state money per year: $7.34 million to $5.94 million.

Regardless of what happens in other counties, Contra Costa will have to work with what it’s given.

“We can make it work, but it will not be to the level we wish we could have,” Kader said. “The goal would be to provide more service options and unfortunately that’s not going to happen.”



By The Numbers

Current jail capacities and populations for Contra Costa County.


Prison Population Growth

Populations represent institution occupants, not parolees. Information from California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

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