A new law aimed at reducing overcrowding in California's prisons goes into effect Sunday.
What does reducing the state's prison population by about 38,000 inmates mean to Nevada County?
There will be no immediate influx of jailbirds, local authorities say. The new law, AB 109, does not affect those already serving their sentences in prison; it will affect those inmates who are about to leave prison, and anyone convicted of low-level felonies after Oct. 1.
The county is braced for a jump in the jail population and in the number of probationers requiring supervision, but the effect of "realignment" on sentencing in the local courts remains a wild card.
AB 109 is the result of a lawsuit, Brown v. Plata, and a subsequent ruling by the state Supreme Court that conditions in California's overcrowded prisons were so bad that they violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The state was ordered to reduce the prison population and is doing so by "realigning" low-level felony offenders from prisons to locally run, community-based corrections programs.
This realignment is being accomplished with two major shifts, explained Nevada County Chief Probation Officer Doug Carver, who made a presentation Tuesday to the county Board of Supervisors in which he noted the bill itself was 664 pages long, and currently had about 350 pages of amendments.
"This is the biggest public policy change to public security we have seen in 40 years," Carver said. "Obviously, this is going to create new issues."
Carver was quick to emphasize that realignment affects what he called the "non/non/nons" - non-serious, non-violent, non-sex offenders.
The bill changed the legal definition of more than 500 felonies to provide for punishment by local jail time only and no state prison. The length of the sentence is the same, but there is no parole or probation when these offenders are released from jail.
The bill also shifts the supervision of the majority of parolees leaving prison to probation instead of parole, creating a new classification called post-release community supervision. Parolees who violate parole will not return to state prison, but will do their time in the local jail.
Certain inmates are automatically disqualified from doing their time in local jails. These include anyone with a prior serious, violent, or felony sex offense conviction.
There are also about 68 exempted current crimes, including physical child abuse, elder abuse, vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and felony domestic violence.
Judges have a new option called split sentencing, Carver said. A judge can order the maximum term, or impose a period of jail time plus a period of mandatory supervision by probation, not to exceed the maximum term.
"It became evident that some would opt out of probation, do their jail time (with half-time good behavior credit) and not have any supervision after they are released," Carver said. "To incentivize probation, the legislature created a split-sentence option."
The state will continue to supervise parolees with three strikes, parolees who are high-risk sex offenders, and parolees who have been convicted of serious or violent felonies.
Nevada County Sheriff Keith Royal called realignment a "Pandora's box," estimating a surge of between 25 and 50 inmates into the county jail over the next two years.
"The problem is how to manage the increase in population," he said. "This was a great way to balance the state budget on our back."
According to Royal, the maximum capacity for Wayne Brown Correctional Facility is about 264 inmates, and the jail runs close to 200 inmates right now.
"A jail is considered over-crowded at 80 percent of capacity, so we are close to that," he said.
Nevada County currently houses between 50 to 60 federal prisoners at any one time, which brings in a significant amount of money that Royal does not want to lose.
"They keep 15 officers on the street," he said. "I would have to cut patrols in half if I got rid of the federal prisoners."
Nevada County received $515,000 over the next nine months to fund the realignment, an amount Royal called inadequate.
The Sheriff's Office will look to ease the increase in the jail population with forms of alternative sentencing that already exist locally - a weekender program for lower-level offenders, work furlough for eligible candidates and home detention with electronic monitoring. AB 109 does provide an option for involuntary electronic monitoring.
"It will pretty much be what we already have on the ground," Royal said. "The money's just not there (for new programs)."
Carver noted one possibility is to contract with the state fire camps to provide staffing.
"We're better off than most," Royal said. "Some jurisdictions are so impacted, they are looking at day reporting" - where the inmate just checks in daily.
"I'm doing everything I can to keep my prisoners off the streets," he said.
A great amount of authority was given to the probation department in an effort to avoid involvement by the judicial system, Carver said.
New with this bill are intermediate sanctions by probation, including up to 10 days of "flash" incarceration, and electronic monitoring.
Inmates can be placed on post-release community supervision for three years maximum. If they make six months with no violations, they can be discharged from supervision. If they make it a year, discharge from supervision is mandatory.
"We are already receiving (transfer) packets," Carver said. "The first one will come to us in December."
Carver estimated the probation department will probably see an increase of 14 to 17 people to supervise over the next year, then one to two a month.
"The money we got (to fund the realignment) is woefully insignificant," he said. "That $515,000 also has to cover behavioral health, counseling, social services, education - there are a lot of hands out for that money ... We need to continue to push for a constitutional amendment for realignment funding, to protect the monies against takeaways."
The probation department is looking to hire an additional probation officer, because earlier layoffs have stretched the staff thin, Carver said.
Carver is getting ready to open a new day reporting center in the space formerly occupied by the Victim Witness Center in Nevada City.
"A lot of these people need highly structured activities," he said. "They will report to a center as a way to structure their day, they will have intense supervision."
The center will offer individual and group counseling, substance abuse and anger management counseling, as well as job skills development with a literacy component, Carver said.
"We'll see some good results out of that," he predicted.
To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, e-mail email@example.com or call (530) 477-4229.