Take Two for January 14, 2013

California's prison realignment causes dangerous row of dominoes at local level

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Inmates at Chino State Prison exercise in the yard December 10, 2010 in Chino, California. The U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to hear arguments to appeal a federal court's ruling last year that the California state prison system would have to release 40,000 prisoners to cope with overcrowding so severe that it violated their human rights. More than 144,000 inmates are currently incarcerated in prisons that were designed to hold about 80,000.

After a federal court ordered California to reduce its prison population, California enacted "realignment," shifting responsibility for tens of thousands of felons to counties. But a little over a year after the change took effect, local officials say they often lack critical information about who and where these people are. KPCC's Julie Small reports.

In 2011, California began "realignment" – shifting state inmates to local custody to comply with an order from a federal court to ease overcrowding as a way to improve prison medical care.

Counties had only a few months from the time realignment became law to the day they became responsible for supervising thousands of additional felons coming out of state prisons. Officials focused on beefing up probation departments and city jails. Coordinating databases wasn’t a top priority.

"It was a kind of a 'Ready, fire, aim' approach," says Glendale police Chief Ron De Pompa.

De Pompa says, from the outset, he lacked important information about the state prisoners released into his community.
 
"About 70 percent of the addresses we get on these individuals are bad," De Pompa said. "We are behind the eight-ball from the start because we don’t even know where these individuals reside in our community, until suddenly we encounter them on a call for service or a violent crime or in an arrest situation."

Before realignment, counties could use a state database of low-level felons in their communities to see a parolee’s physical description, address and prior convictions.

Los Gatos Police Chief Scott Seaman, head of the California Police Chiefs Association, says police relied on the database to keep communities safe.
 
"Parole had a system, which we all had access to, and parole agents would update the cases of their clients," Seaman says. "And we could check that system and we could know what their current status of an offender was if we had contact with them or they came to our attention in the course of an investigation."

Police can still access the state database, but it’s not up-to-date for felons under county supervision. That’s because county probation officers have their own databases to maintain. Seaman says some local police chiefs have had trouble getting access to those county files.

Greatest challenge: Los Angeles County 

Under realignment, Los Angeles County has received a third of all felons released from state prisons. In the first year of realignment, the county probation department gained more than 11,000 new cases to track.  

"The probation department has been challenged, both with its own ability to process the large numbers of offenders who are coming, but also the difficulties of starting a big program in a short period of time," Seaman says.
 
"We’re doing it. But we’re doing it with limited resources," says Reaver Bingham, the L.A. County Probation Department's deputy chief of adult services. He oversees the department’s realignment plan. 
 
"We had to build this program quickly," Bingham explains. "So there were certain infrastructure that we had to build. There were certain things that had to be fine-tuned. There were certain basic relationships that we had to formulate. And there were certain internal things that we had to do before we could fully branch out and do some of these other things. But the intent to share information was always there."

Paper records in a computer age

One thing that slows down probation: California’s prisons maintain inmate files the old fashioned way – on paper. Probation staff digitize them by scanning the documents manually.  
 
L.A. County Probation has worked out a system to share the data with the Sheriff's Department, which then shares it with local police departments. But that’s where the data trail ends, which creates another new problem for police: counties aren’t sharing probation data the way state parole officers do.

Fontana Police Chief Rodney Jones says if he arrests an L.A. County probationer in San Bernardino County, he can’t know if they’ve violated the conditions of their probation.
 
“I have very little access, if any, to find out what those terms are," Jones says. "And [whether]  he’s in violation of those terms...or even find out who is probation officer is.”

There’s growing consensus among California law enforcement officials that they need to be able to read every county's probation database.
 
Matthew Cate, who implemented realignment when he was Secretary of Corrections, recently became head of the California State Association of Counties. Cate agrees that a statewide database would be good to have, but might be difficult to achieve.
 
A one-size-fits-all system would be difficult to design, says Cate, "until we know that each county can afford to provide their data, that we know whoever is accumulating data is doing it in a way that makes sense.”   

L.A. County officials have been meeting with the Brown administration and the state Department of Justice to push for a statewide database of county-supervised felons.

And they’re pushing for the state to fund it.


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