Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Ventura County Star: State prison realiagnment to counties provide opportunities

Public safety shift seen as opportunity to reverse recidivism

By Kathleen Wilson
Posted September 26, 2011 at 8:25 p.m.

© 2011 Ventura County Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

As county officials prepare to accept parolees and prisoners from the state of California starting Saturday, they smell opportunity amid the worry.

Today, they're taking a $4.8 million plan before the Ventura County Board of Supervisors they hope will help rehabilitate many of the hundreds of offenders coming their way during the next few years.

"You have to break the cycle for this to be successful," said Sheriff's Cmdr. Guy Stewart, who oversees the main jail in Ventura. "I think our county is set up well to connect offenders with services and programs they need to change their pattern of behavior."

As part of the state budget for this fiscal year, legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown shifted the responsibility for jailing lower-risk inmates and monitoring many parolees to California's 58 counties.

The state, which must reduce the number of inmates in crowded state prisons to comply with a federal court order, has funded the program this year. Brown is seeking to guarantee funding with a constitutional amendment in future years for the transfer, which state officials call "realignment."

Probation Director Mark Varela said the plan going to the board today contains the core activities needed to deal with the offenders now. In a second phase, he will propose a long-term approach.

About half of California's state prison inmates return to prison within a year of release, according to a 2010 report. Brown says they'll have a better shot if local communities can supervise them and connect them to programs tailored to their needs.

Varela said these people may need programs such as schooling and treatment for mental health problems and addiction. He plans to use tested practices that have worked in other areas.

"I believe in a level of redemption, otherwise I wouldn't be a probation officer." he said. "With the right resources and the right collaboration and all of us working as a team, I believe we will see differences."

Starting Saturday, county judges may no longer send residents to state prison for crimes considered nonserious and nonviolent felonies. They include battery, vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, possession of an assault weapon, forgery, grand theft and sales of narcotics.

Such offenders will instead go to county jails. The main jail and the Todd Road Jail outside Santa Paula have a capacity for about 1,600. They average a little more than 1,400 now. With the additional inmates, sheriff's officials anticipate 1,700 inmates by August and 1,800 by the following summer.

Sheriff's officials plan to set up bunks in the commons areas of the jail to accommodate the crowd. They also plan to expand the use of electronic monitors so more inmates can be released under supervision. The county may send some inmates to state or private correctional institutions.

Sheriff's officials are proposing to expand vocational, education and treatment programs because these inmates will be in jail for 16 to 36 months and perhaps longer. The agency wants to expand the print shop at Todd Road Jail, emphasize computer skills and add substance abuse and mental health programs.

State correctional officials say there is no plan to shorten sentences or to move prisoners from state prisons to local jails.

County probation officers will take on the responsibility for 300 to 350 people being released from prison within the next nine months, the plan says. The first group of 32 is due to arrive next month.

Officials are concerned about whether the state will continue to provide funding.

"Although these inmates have been deemed lower-level offenders, the vast majority of them are chronic offenders," the plan says.

Supervisors will be asked today to approve the plan and authorize a dozen new positions for a mental health clinician, jail administrators to develop programs for inmates, attorneys and sheriff's deputies, among others. Varela plans to fill eight vacancies for probation workers but is not seeking new positions.

An evaluation of the programs will be done, with the first results expected in six months, he said.
The presentation is scheduled at 11:30 a.m. in the board hearing room at the Hall of Administration at the County Government Center, 800 S. Victoria Ave. in Ventura.

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