State prison realignment not risk-free

Posted on December 5, 2011. Filed under: California State Budget, Crime, Politics, Prisons, Public Safety Realignment |

Stockton Record
By Michael Fitzgerald
Record Columnist
December 04, 2011 12:00 AM

While the city of Stockton is preoccupied fighting a full Fukushima financial meltdown, the state is shipping hundreds of criminals here, with little public scrutiny.

So let’s at least take a whack at watchdogging the process of “realignment.”

You recall Uncle Sam ordered California to reduce its prison population. So the state is shipping parolees to counties for community-based supervision.

And, if necessary, lock-up in jails, not prison. Also, new offenders sentenced to less than three years go to jail, not prison. This process, untested and uncertain, is now two months along.

As best I can tell, San Joaquin County is way ahead of the curve in planning. Its public Safety Realignment 2011 Plan is a well-thought-out, comprehensive interagency strategy to absorb waves of criminals with minimum compromise to the public safety.

On paper, that is. Reality keeps throwing curve balls, spitters and back-door sliders.

The first is that the state, for reasons unknown (theories range from a random variation from projections to incompetence) sent many more criminals than it projected: dozens more in the first two months, on top of realignment jail prisoners.

Local officials also worry that state parole officials, who still have authority over many parolees, are injudiciously violating parolees for minor reasons, heedless of the impact on the county.

Whatever the case, the perpetually overflowing San Joaquin County Jail, which actually had room in recent months, has refilled. Remember, the jail has a court-imposed “cap,” a criminal occupancy limit.

“This morning, I have 123 people over capacity,” Sheriff Steve Moore said. “Because parole numbers are so skewed from what they originally anticipated, we’re looking at alternative housing.”

The alternative housing was supposed to be the former Northern California Womens Facility, a vacant prison east of Stockton. The state pledged to reopen it as a county overflow jail. It has not.

Nor has the state responded to Moore’s various proposals for reopening it.

The state appears to be reevaluating reopening the facility in light of the state budget crisis and other factors.

A spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was unreachable Friday.

Even if San Joaquin had sufficient jail beds, the realignment law says parole violators can be returned to jail for only 90 days.

This much-softer punishment – before realignment, a violator could get a year in prison – has raised concerns that the sentence is too light to deter criminals from committing crimes.

Only time will tell.

Improvising, the county bought scores of GPS ankle monitors. It is sending numerous felons to home detention. It also has released 84 jail inmates early to make room for the really bad actors. It will release more.

The county also opened a day reporting center in the Canlis Building downtown. It obliges high-risk parolees to check in daily.

There, parole officers trained as teachers of an intriguing course are trying to change the way criminals think.

The course is called Moral Reconation Training. “Conation” is an old word for decision-making; the course aims to teach parolees moral choice-making.

“I’m not under the false belief that we can change everybody,” said Patty Mazzilli, the county’s chief probation officer. “I am a realist. But there are a group of them that will be receptive.”

Preliminary reports are encouraging.

“I buy into this personally,” Parole Officer George Flores said. “This is by far a lot more concrete, positive training for these individuals. They’ve ever been exposed to anything like this.”

MRT may be one of the most interesting and positive things going on in San Joaquin County. After all, the old hang-’em-high system is what got the state into trouble, with its overflowing prisons and a recidivism rate of a dismal 71 percent.

But participation in the class, while expected to grow, is limited.

And realignment is in such early stages there is no reliable data on anything – just a sense that the county criminal justice system better be ready to roll with the punches.

So, while the county’s actions seem resourceful, there’s no getting around the lack of jail beds, the early jail releases, and the greater presence of felons in the community.

And their effect on public safety.

“Is there a potential for crime?” Moore asked. “Yes. They’re criminals. That’s what they do.”

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