This week, California is moving to shift supervision of thousands of nonviolent state parolees to county authorities. Two Inland counties are working fast to set down their plans with the big surge of new ex-cons headed their way.
Riverside County jailers, prosecutors, public defenders and parole officers have been tinkering with a plan for months.
“We are building the plane in flight," chief county probation officer Alan Crogan says. "I mean good heavens! This is a change of an entire criminal justice system!”
Crogan is supervising the transition. “There are so many moving parts that until you actually have the individuals in front of you, and you do your risk and needs analysis of their risk to the community, you don’t know what all your responsibilities are going to be.”
Crogan expects about 1,700 new parolees over the next year. He’s adding about 70 new probation officers and paying for them out of the $21 million in state money that covers the first nine months of realignment. Over a quarter of that cash goes straight to county probation. “Um, that’s pretty close," Crogan says. "You’re almost dead on.”
The sheriff, prosecutors and public defenders will divvy up the rest of the money. Crogan says everyone’s reaching for the Pepto-Bismol.
“When you make a major system change like this it's going to create anxiety, fear," Crogan says. "I personally feel we will be much more effective and efficient because we have a capacity through proper funding to supervise this population. And we have a commitment to see that it is safe, and so I feel we’ll do a better job.”
A better job than the state Department of Corrections, that is. Seven out every 10 offenders coming out of prison wind up back in prison.
Under realignment, many of them will serve time in a county lockup instead. San Bernardino County’s probation chief Michelle Scray says greater local oversight could reduce the state’s recidivism rate.
“At least it’s an opportunity to try and do it differently," Scray says, "and I think only time will tell just how much a success that we will be able to have on a local level.”
Riverside County public defender Christine Voss says it means prosecutors won’t win as often when they push for tougher sentences. “Yeah, I don’t know if it shifts any power!" Voss says. "But if certainly shifts some influence and gives our clients much greater opportunity of success."
For Voss, “success” means reduced sentences or maybe no jail time for the people her office defends. But prosecutors worry they won’t be able to lock up nonviolent felons on a fast track to more serious crimes.
A Riverside County prosecutor, speaking on background, says it amounts to a wholesale decriminalization of non-serious crimes like shoplifting or car theft. There’s also concern that Inland jails don’t have enough space.
Riverside County sheriff Stan Sniff says his jails are jammed, so he’ll have to release more low-level felons early. San Bernardino County probation chief Michelle Scray says the county can’t lock up everyone.
“There is a limited amount," Scray says, "and obviously with having another 300 per month coming through the jail system, somebody has to come out the other end. There’s only so many beds.”
Scray told county supervisors last week that she’s worried about securing state funds to pay for realignment.
“Although you will hear representatives from the state say how the money is set aside through tax revenues," Scray says, "there is no guarantee of funding currently. The governor has indicated that he is going to push for a constitutional amendment or some other guaranteed source of funding for the future.”
Some county officials say realignment offers a chance to bolster substance abuse, mental health and job training programs the state doesn’t have. But community leaders that actually provide those services say they need more money to handle more cases.
“We don’t have the luxury like the Department of Corrections and others to turn others away from their doors," says Reverend Sam Casey. Casey is the director of Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement, or COPE. It’s an Inland Empire nonprofit that helps keep ex-cons on the straight and narrow.
“When individuals come to our doors," Casey says, "we have to receive them regardless of the mistakes and challenges they show up with. And if this county does not take into account the needs of community-based organizations, we will be in the same problem that the state is in: no room, no resources and no process to engage this population.”
And that’s a dilemma for San Bernardino and every other county across California as they hunker down for one of the biggest law enforcement shakeups in state history.