Ready or not, here they come

August 26, 2011 

With the clock ticking, a multi-agency panel in Los Angeles County has approved a plan to confront a “monumental” shift in California’s criminal justice system, one that forces the county to supervise thousands of newly released state inmates and incarcerate thousands more in its strained jail system.

Passage of the complex plan by the Community Corrections Partnership was required under a new state “realignment” law pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown and aimed at reducing California’s prison population while narrowing the state’s budget deficit. On Tuesday, the CCP’s plan goes before the Board of Supervisors, where it can only be rejected by a 4/5 vote.

Supervisors had lobbied hard against the state’s realignment law. They argued that Brown and the legislature were simply shifting the state’s burdens to California’s hard-pressed counties, with little regard for the financial implications or public safety risks. In fact, the state has committed to funding only the first year with a $112-million block grant and $8 million in start-up funds.

“This is going to be a tragedy for justice in our county,” CCP member Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said Wednesday before casting the sole vote against the realignment implementation plan. “It’s predictable, it’s inevitable.”

The reality is that not even a unanimous rejection of the plan would have blocked or delayed implementation of the new law, known as AB 109.

Beginning October 1, the first flow of newly released state prisoners will begin arriving here and in counties across the state, where they’ll be supervised by local authorities rather than state parole officers. Under the state’s realignment program, only inmates convicted of non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual offenses will be placed under county supervision.

In Los Angeles County, that number is expected to hit 9,000 by June, swelling to as many as 15,000 in the second year. Taking the lead in their post-release supervision will be the county’s Probation Department, despite a highly publicized and contentious bid by Sheriff Lee Baca to assume that role.

Already, inmate files have begun arriving for pre-release review by probation, mental health and other designated officials. The goal is to make sure each parolee is provided with the necessary oversight and programs for rehabilitation. The process also is intended to weed out inmates who should have been exempted from the program because of serious or violent criminal histories or because they’d been earlier designated by corrections officials as “mentally disordered offenders.”

Inmates participating in “post-release community supervision,” who’ll be freed from 33 state prison locations, will be given $200, with orders to report to their designated locations within two business days. Despite the expressed fears of the Sheriff’s Department, the state says that only 2% of this type of inmate population has historically failed to show up for parole orientations within five days of their scheduled appearances.

Once they arrive at their assigned locations, a more thorough evaluation will take place, including risk assessments and “behavioral health screening.” Each supervised person will receive a “risk level determination” of Tier I (high), Tier II (medium) and Tier III (low).

Community-based organizations will be tapped to provide such services as substance abuse treatment, job training and other assessed needs. In the short term, because of time constraints, only organizations with existing county contracts will provide services. But longer term, the county will soon request proposals so more organizations can participate and specific service gaps can be filled.

One of the trickiest elements of the plan—described as a work in progress—will be to determine the precise mental health histories and needs of the new charges. Initial prisoner packets will include no detailed medical information. Talks are underway with state corrections officials to provide mental health records directly to the county’s Department of Mental Health but cost and confidentiality issues have yet to be resolved.

Post-release supervision represents just one component of the realignment challenges. The bill’s most controversial and daunting requirement changes the very nature of California’s county jails and, according to some criminal justice officials, poses the highest potential risk to public safety.

Under the legislation, defendants convicted of non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual crimes will no longer be sentenced to state prison unless they have prior violent or serious convictions or are required to register as sex offenders. Beginning in October, this class of defendants will be serving their time in county jail at an estimated rate of 7,000 a year. That means Sheriff Baca will have to further juggle and prioritize who stays behind bars and who’s freed on work release, GPS monitoring or other “community based alternatives.” Thousands of more beds, depending on funding, also would have to be opened at various jail facilities.

District attorney officials and others worry that, because of overcrowding, this new class of inmate will inevitably be sprung early and end up back on the streets, committing crimes at a time when, in the past, they’d be sitting in state prison cells.

In a section of the CCP implementation report titled “jail population management,” the authors state that the wholesale transfer of such responsibilities from the state to Los Angeles County “is monumental and will not only mark a challenge for the Sheriff’s Department but also the District Attorney, the Public Defender, the Probation Department, the Department of Mental Health, the Department of Health Services, the Superior Court, and all municipalities.”

But there are others who say they’re ready and anxious for the opportunity to help the returning inmates get fresh starts. For the past two months, representatives of community and faith-based groups have shown up at CCP meetings, where they’ve urged that a greater emphasis in the discussions be placed on rehabilitation rather than incarceration. And Wednesday was no exception.

As one speaker put it: “Let’s take a mess and turn it into a blessing.”

Posted 8/26/11

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