Frank C. Girardot, Staff Writer
Created: 09/30/2011 05:03:08 PM PDT

Local officials are bracing for a radical realignment of the state penal system that will place thousands of low-level felons in county jail rather than prison.

Depending on whom is doing the analysis, the change, which started to take place Saturday, could either result in a huge crime spike or a noticeable drop in recidivism rates.

Concerned about the plan and its potential impact on public safety, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors met with Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday in Los Angeles, said Supervisor Michael Antonovich, who represents the Fifth District, which includes Claremont, San Dimas and La Verne.

“We had a phone conference call with the governor and were shocked at his lack of understanding of the consequences of dumping state felons on the doorstep of every county in this state,” Antonovich said.

“Many of these people are mentally ill – severely mentally ill – and the board’s position was that we will not accept any of the severely mentally ill,” he said. “If we are forced to do that, we will sue the state. That’s what led to this meeting with the governor.”

The realignment came about as the result of AB 109, a bill signed by Brown in April that promised to “stop the costly, ineffective and unsafe `revolving door’ of lower-level offenders and parole violators through our state prisons.”

In different ways county court officials, prosecutors and cops are preparing to deal with the fallout.

Rising crime

Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley – for one – warns the plan will result in a “public safety nightmare.”

“We are going to go from the lowest crime rate in 60 years to the biggest spike in crime in our lifetime,” Cooley said. “On top of that it’s going to force more case settlements and the quality of prosecutions will decline.”

Estimates done by the Vera Institute – an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit – note that jails operated by the Sheriff’s Department annually book 171,000 inmates and maintain a daily population of about 19,000.

Additionally, L.A. county jails – like Wayside, Pitchess, Men’s Central and Twin Towers – operate under a consent decree designed to reduce overcrowding.

“Chronic overcrowding in the county’s jail facilities has already generated a number of serious problems: the federal government has placed a cap on the number of people the jails can legally house, rehabilitative services are insufficient to serve inmates’ needs, and the jails have high levels of violence – both among inmates and between inmates and correctional officers,” according to a study done by the New York-based institute.

Which means, “There is no county system to handle 12,000 to 13,000 new prisoners,” Cooley said. “Sheriff Baca has an early release system to live within the cap. The county can’t handle it … there’s no place to put them, no physical bed space.”

Teaching the 3Rs to the N3s

On the other hand, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca believes his deputies can do a better job than the state when it comes to managing “low-level offenders.”

Specifically, Baca hopes to provide an education to felons referred to in the new law as the N3s – nonviolent, non-sexual and non-repeat offenders.

He points to programs like Father Greg Boyle’s Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles as proof that education and job skills can help criminals turn their lives around.

“We have to look at what we are doing here differently,” Baca said. “We have to see if education rather than business as usual will be what it takes to make this work.”

Making it work will not only include housing the new class of felons in county jail, but also using GPS tracking and monitoring once they are released. Much of that data will be available to deputies via computer terminals installed in their patrol cars.

Additionally, county probation officers will take on the added task of supervising prisoners who were formerly placed on parole.

“The other side of this is the enforcement side,” Baca said. “I’ll be dealing with the absconders. We’ll be doing geomapping of parolee addresses and conditions of their parole 24/7.”

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