Wednesday, August 31, 2011
County Officials Blast Criminal Justice Realignment
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
Fearful of a spike in crime and out-of-control costs, the Los Angeles district attorney and other officials for the nation’s most populous county yesterday slammed the upcoming transfer of responsibility for thousands of convicts from the state to the local level.
Under AB 109, the criminal justice realignment legislation signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in April, lower level offenders convicted after Oct. 1 will serve their time in county jails or alternative programs instead of in state prison and ex-felons on parole will be monitored by county parole offices and not by state agents.
Brown has said his goal goes beyond saving money in a budget crisis. Realignment seeks “to stop the costly, ineffective and unsafe ‘revolving door’ of lower-level offenders and parole violators through our state prisons,” he said.
But criminal justice officials, here and elsewhere, have been critical of the measure.
“We do not have the infrastructure in place to handle that particular population,” District Attorney Steve Cooley said, calling the move “horribly flawed” and predicting it would lead to a big bump in crime.
Officials said state lawmakers essentially had sold a bill of goods when they touted the legislation because there was no constitutional guarantee counties would be reimbursed. Los Angeles County estimates its costs will eventually surpass $300 million annually.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky predicted that lawmakers in Sacramento, who are perennially scrambling to balance the state’s budget, would soon start snipping away at money they allocate to counties for prisoner supervision.
“This is a state responsibility which has been dumped on counties and we fell collectively for the line that we had been guaranteed the money to do it,” Yaroslavsky said. “They have done what they set out to do, which is to get this responsibility off their financial books and now we are the variable in their budget.”
California corrections department spokeswoman Dana Toyama said she could not comment on funding because it is a legislative issue but said counties had been given plenty of opportunities to be involved in the realignment process.
Across California, after the four years it takes to implement the changes, counties will look after about 25,000 convicts who otherwise would have gone to state prison. Those already in state prison will complete their sentences there.
With about 10 million residents, Los Angeles County will take the largest share of the prisoners who otherwise would have been the state’s responsibility.
Sheriff Lee Baca said his sprawling jail system has about 4,500 spare beds. It’s not clear that will be enough — officials said between 7,000 and 9,000 convicts will fall under the county’s jurisdiction in the first year. It wasn’t known how many of those would be serving jail terms and how many would be on parole.
Under AB 109, offenders convicted of low-level felonies—those for which the prescribed base term is three years in prison or less—would serve their sentences in county jail, rather than state prison. The only exceptions would be those convicted of serious or violent felonies or crimes requiring sex offender registration, or who were previously convicted of such an offense.
Baca said the extra inmates did not necessarily mean crime would spike and he pledged that every new prisoner would be given access to an educational plan, which could result in lower recidivism rates.
The changes coincide with a federal mandate requiring California to shed about 33,000 inmates from its overcrowded prisons. Aside from the 25,000 fewer inmates it will have under the realignment, it aims to make up the difference through reduced recidivism rates and alternative custody arrangements.
State court officials have also voiced concerns, particularly about provisions requiring that some parole violations be heard in the trial courts rather than before the state Board of Parole Hearings. The Legislature noted those concerns in June, when it enacted AB 117, a follow-up that authorizes courts to refer those cases to lawyers or retired judges sitting as hearing officers.
Donald Blevins, the chief probation officer for Los Angeles County, said he thought inmates might fare better under the new system because they would have better access to training and supervision than under the state system.
“We are confident we can develop a supervision and treatment model that will effectively change these offenders’ behaviors,” Blevins said.
Currently, offenders processed through the state penal system have about a 70 percent chance of committing new crimes. Blevins said he hoped to be able to get that recidivism rate down to just 30 percent.
County officials were meeting to finalize procedures to deal with the changes, but continued a vote on the proposed plans.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company