Governor’s plan would save state millions per year
Staff and Wire Reports
Created: 01/30/2011 07:01:27 AM PST

Gov. Jerry Brown has called for a major shift of state prisoners to the county jail system, a plan aimed at saving money, reducing overcrowded prisons and attempting to better handle juveniles and low-level offenders who cycle through the justice system at great cost.

Brown’s plan would eliminate altogether the state’s juvenile prison system, sending offenders to their home counties and reducing costs that have reached more than $200,000 annually per youth inmate.

If legislators agree with Brown’s plan, the state would stop housing 37,000 adult convicts each year who are short-timers, low-level offenders and parole violators. Those groups instead would be held in county jails at a cost some experts say could be half the current burden.

Jennifer Walsh, professor of political science at Azusa Pacific University and a board member of the Association for Criminal Justice Research, said the move would simply pass the overcrowding issue to local officials. The plan may also cause crime to increase as offenders know they won’t be serving much time in jail because of early release from overcrowding.

“They won’t simply serve the time,” Walsh said. “Offenders also know there’s no incentive to pleading guilty and doing community service, because if they get booked into jail and spend a couple of nights, it’s easier than the community service. It’s an opposite deterrent.”

Dennis Christy, assistant deputy district attorney for San Bernardino County, said the potential situation would also impact the court system.

“We would not be able to move cases through the courts because there would be no incentive to resolve cases with defendants knowing they can’t go to jail because there’s no room,” said Christy.

“So there would be a slowdown in the processing of cases in our local courts and we are already experiencing the heaviest weighted case load in the state. We have too many cases and an inability to sentence persons in custody will significantly impact our ability to process these cases. It’s going to have a very significant negative impact on the local criminal justice system in our courts.”

Brown’s budget outlines his plans for the state to house only the most serious and violent adult felony offenders, while shifting low-level adult offenders, all youth offenders and parolees to county systems “where they are known to local law enforcement and where community support systems exist.”

Local governments, the budget states, are better positioned to end “the revolving door of the corrections systems” by determining what types of monitoring, treatment and training inmates need.

The shift with adult offenders would contribute in part to a decrease in the state’s 2011-12 fiscal budget of $485.8 million. Eliminating the Division of Juvenile Justice would result in a savings of $78 million – and $250 million annually after the program is completely ended by June 2014.

“Today, almost 50,000 people are sent to prison and spend less than 90 days,” Brown, formerly the state’s attorney general, said a press conference last week.

“I feel this should be handled locally.”

He also vowed to give counties the funds they need to handle the influx, allowing them to “make the decision on how to manage it.”

Money accompanying state prisoners who return to their home counties is the main concern among law enforcement officers statewide, who have been meeting with the governor for weeks to discuss the topic.

Curtis Hill, a consultant with the State Sheriff’s Association, said the capacity and funding are very big issues. He said there isn’t enough room, and the funding isn’t in place. As a representative for the association, he’s been communicating with lawmakers and the governor’s office regarding the concerns of county sheriff’s which administer the county jails throughout the state.

“In the event this passes, we’re looking for some mechanism for counties in the state to go after state funds to build or expand current jail facilities,” Hill said.

“That’s one of the discussions we’ve been having with the legislature and the governor’s office because not only are county jails up and down the state full, but some sheriffs have had to shut facilities or close facilities because they’ve had to lay off correctional staff that work in that space.”

While sheriffs like Santa Clara County’s Laurie Smith are not opposed to the idea of taking on state inmates, they insist they cannot do so without adequate funding – even in counties like Smith’s, where there is bed space available.

In counties at capacity, some lower-level jail inmates may have to be released to make room, said Nick Warner, legislative director for the California State Sheriffs’ Association.

“The fiscal condition of the state has deteriorated to the point where we have to look at some other options, and we’re willing to do so,” Warner said. “The question is, can you match up the money with the program, and can you create jail beds to match the growth?”

Warner added: “Given the resources, there’s a workable solution.”

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye last week called an emergency meeting of court personnel to discuss how to cope with the proposed cut.

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