State prison inmates threaten to overwhelm LA County

Rich Pedroncelli/AP

In this photo taken Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2011, double-tiered bunks are seen in one of the cells at a formerly closed housing unit at the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center, in Elk Grove, Calif. that will be reopened to handle the increase of inmates sentenced under the new prison realignment program. The realignment plan, championed by Gov. Jerry Brown, is aimed at slashing the state's costs and reducing its prison populations by allowing judges to send non-violent, lower level offenders to county jail for crimes such as property, white collar and drug offenses instead of state prison. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Los Angeles County officials are struggling to deal with an influx of former state prison inmates to the county. Thousands of non-serious and non-violent criminals now fall under the supervision of the counties as part of California's plan to reduce its prison population. Some fear illegal activities are bound to spring up in its wake.

“I think you’re going to see a spike in crime in the months ahead," Supervisor Mike Antonavich said.

Antonavich pointed to the long criminal record of one man the state planned to released to L.A. County. His list of crimes included assault on a police officer, assault to commit rape and indecent exposure.

"This was not the profile that the governor was telling the counties we would be receiving and responsible for," he said.

Under one part of the state's realignment plan, county probation officers instead of state parole agents supervise non-serious, non-violent, non-sex offender inmates coming out of prison. The state only count's the inmate's last conviction - not his entire record - when considering who to release.

More than half of the 1,019 inmates released to L.A. County in October were considered high risk for committing new crimes.

“It could be ongoing continual criminal thinking patterns, anti-social behavior," Reaver Bingham, Bureau Chief of Probation's Adult Field Services, said. "When we did the assessment, they hit high on these categories which rendered them high risk.”

Nearly a quarter of those released have been diagnosed with mental health disorders, Dr. Marvin Southard, L.A. County director of Mental Health, said. He is surprised at the severity of their problems.

“The level of acuity of mental health need is greater than we initially projected that it might be," Southard said. "The vast majority require intensive outpatient services.”

Southard conceded the county is struggling to provide that help.

Probation officials said they are working on a contract with community based agencies to expand services. They said they’re also looking at whether the county can force parolees to accept mental health services as a condition of their release.

Under realignment, people who commit new non-serious, non-violent, and non-sexual offenses go to county jails instead of state prison. L.A. County Assistant Sheriff Cecil Rhambo said most who arrived at the jail in October committed a drug offense or burglary, and most were sentenced to two or three years.

He said the county saw 260 more inmates that it expected last month. “We did see a number come to us higher than anticipated," Rhambo said. He said the "spike" happened because some defendants had delayed their sentencing to avoid state prison time.

Rhambo conceded sheriff's officials likely will be forced to release some inmates early, and conduct more G.P.S. monitoring, as the jails fill up.

Some county officials sought to place a positive spin on how realignment was rolling out.

“Given such a huge change, I think we’ve really experienced fewer problems than we certainly could have," Cal Remington, Acting Probation Chief, said.

Some at the probation department are hopeful that the county can do a better job of rehabilitating criminals than the state. But they say they’ll need to offer a lot more help to ex-convicts if they’re going to succeed.

Mary Sutton, a prisoner rights advocate, agreed.

“We need to talk about this group of people with a sense of humanity," Sutton said. "What are we going to do to help these people survive and make it back into the communities that they came from.”

But among county officials, there is a sense of inevitability that one of the inmates released under realignment will commit a high profile crime that will attract a lot of media attention.

“Down the line, one of these guys is going to be a major re-offender. We know that," Supervisor Gloria Molina said.

"But that’s the nature of anybody that comes out of our state prisons.”

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