No room in Fresno Co. Jail for parole violators

Posted on November 27, 2011. Filed under: California State Budget, Parole, Politics, Public Safety Realignment |

By Kurtis Alexander – The Fresno Bee

Friday, Nov. 25, 2011 | 10:44 PM Modified Fri, Nov 25, 2011 10:51 PM

In another sign that Fresno County is struggling to manage more criminals, the sheriff has ordered that state parole violators no longer will be held at the county jail.

The parolees, who were once sent to state prison if they got into trouble, are now sent to local jails instead – part of the state’s recent realignment of the penal system. But in Fresno County, where the jail already is crowded, the Sheriff’s Office has determined there’s no room for the former convicts.

State parole officials, acknowledging counties are being asked to do more under the realignment, say they’ll try to find other ways to deal with problem parolees.

Orders to not lock them up began Thanksgiving Day. While the jail has long been releasing inmates early because of the lack of space, the directive to turn away parolees only reinforces concerns that criminals aren’t serving the time they should.

“They’re out in the community and they’re violating their parole, and when there’s no consequence for violating, that’s going to be a public safety issue,” said Kelly Keenan, chief assistant district attorney for Fresno County.

Sheriff’s officials said Friday they have no choice but to close the door to parole violators. The jail’s 2,427 beds, which are nearly full, need to be reserved for more dangerous inmates, and as the jail population has risen with the realignment, parolees have become a lesser threat, they said.

“Nobody likes to have to do this,” Undersheriff Scott Jones said. “We just had to select the best option available to us at this time.”

The sheriff’s order does not apply to parolees who commit new crimes. These criminals may still qualify for jail time, depending on their offense. The new order applies to those who break the terms of their parole, such as drinking alcohol or being somewhere they shouldn’t be.

The parolee’s prior offense, even if it’s a serious and violent crime, does not factor into the decision to release.

The number of parole violators sent to the county jail since realignment began Oct. 1 has been much greater than what the state projected.

And that’s what’s driving the directive to keep them out, sheriff’s officials said.

On Nov. 8, 139 state parolees were being held at the jail, records show. That’s more than all the inmates the county was expecting to hold at this stage of realignment. The bulk of new inmates will come from the courts, which are now sentencing low-level offenders to jails instead of prison.

The Sheriff’s Office has worried about getting stuck with too many criminals – and not enough funding – even before the additional responsibility came.

“We were very skeptical from the start of the numbers,” Jones said. “We’re doing our best to deal with this situation.”

Just two weeks into the realignment, a new jail floor the sheriff opened to help accommodate the influx of criminals was full. Most of the 432 extra beds were filled with inmates the county would have held before realignment anyway, and Sheriff Margaret Mims said then the space wouldn’t likely be sufficient for what’s to come.

State parole officials said Friday they would find a way to deal with parole violators that the jail is turning away.

“Parole agents can implement alternatives to incarceration, including GPS monitoring, day-reporting centers and home detention, in such situations,” said Oscar Hidalgo, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Hidalgo acknowledged that under realignment, counties won’t be able to jail as many criminals as they have in the past. But, he said, this provides an opportunity to find more effective means of dealing with criminals, such as rehabilitation.

“The idea of incarcerating everyone at the state level and the local level has not been economically sound, fiscally sound and hasn’t contributed much to curbing recidivism,” Hidalgo said.

The impetus behind the realignment was a Supreme Court order directing the state to reduce its prison population. Gov. Jerry Brown was a chief advocate.

Fresno County is not the only county to absorb more of the state prison population than it expected. Both Tulare and Kern counties have seen bigger numbers, as have many counties in Southern California.

Keenan said the county’s decision to turn away parolees is just one more example of how the state didn’t adequately prepare counties for the new workload.

Said Keenan: “It’s showing how the realignment was rushed through and creating problems.”

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