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CRIME: One year after state realignment, crime up and jails full
One year after California shifted the responsibility for housing and monitoring thousands of would-be prison inmates from state agencies to counties, local jails are full and crime rates have crept up.
The fuller jails are a direct result of the changes, which place would-be state prison inmates in local jails. However, officials are split as to the cause of the uptick in crime rates.
Though the news could be discouraging, local officials said last week that they remain optimistic, and say they have made strides in implementing their plan to address the changes the state imposed on them last year.
"I really do think it is a work in progress," said Mack Jenkins, the chief of San Diego County's Probation Department and the head of the multiagency partnership tasked with making realignment work locally.
"It's too soon right now to evaluate the process in my opinion," Jenkins said. "It's just been a year. We are still putting the pieces into place."
Dubbed "realignment," the changes were imposed on county governments across the state by Assembly Bill 109.
Under realignment, fewer criminals go to state prison and more stay in county jails, sending a higher-risk population to county oversight. Their sentences don't change, only their housing does. People who commit serious or violent felonies, and those who commit sex offenses, still go to state prison.
Aside from the housing change, local probation officers now monitor offenders who, under the old rules, would have been monitored by state parole agents.
The bill passed in April 2011. The changes took effect six months later, sending law enforcement agencies in San Diego County scrambling to house more than 2,000 higher-risk inmates and another 2,000 parolees to monitor after their release.
Last year, local law enforcement officials said they welcomed the changes with cautious optimism, saying they could house, monitor and rehabilitate offenders better and cheaper than the state. The caveat, however, was funding.
A year later, that funding is still not secure.
Voters will play a role in the push to secure a funding stream for realignment. Proposition 30, which would raise sales tax from 7.25 percent to 7.5 percent, also has a provision that would provide guaranteed funding for the counties for public safety services under realignment.
Tying the tax increase to the funding stream plays politics with public safety, San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said this week.
Local law enforcement officials say it is hard to measure success only a year into the shift of so many offenders from state to local responsibility. There is so little data to look at, and so few programs in place.
But one report in August found that crime rates increased in the first half of this year in the county ---- the first increase in years.
However, the San Diego Association of Governments, the agency behind the report, said that it could not attribute that increase to any one factor. And even with the increase, crime rates in San Diego County "are still the second lowest in the past 10 years," according to agency's crime report.
The increase raised the eyebrows of Dumanis, who said this week that she does believe there is a straight line between realignment and higher crime rates.
"I don't think it is a coincidence that crime was at its all-time low in 40 years, and now it is up 6 percent," Dumanis said. "That is circumstantial evidence to me."
She pointed to the short time ---- six months ---- that state officials gave the counties to get their plans in place before forcing them to keep more felons in county jails and monitor a higher caliber of criminal.
"We are all trying to make the airplane while we are flying it," Dumanis said. "We are working as fast as we can to get up to speed."
Jails nearing capacity
Then there are the jails, which on an average day are at 96 to 99 percent of the system's capacity of about 5,500 inmates, according to the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, which runs the county's jails.
With realignment, the average length of stay has leapt nearly five-fold. Last year, a county jail inmate stayed an average of about 75 days. Now, that length of stay is 346 days, San Diego County Sheriff's Cmdr. Will Brown said last week.
Some felons sentenced to the jails under realignment can expect to be there for years. Before realignment, the longest jail sentences were a year. Since realignment, at least one inmate has been sentenced to longer than 10 years in a San Diego County jail.
When the jail population reached more than 90 percent of capacity earlier this year, Sheriff Bill Gore invoked his power to shave time from sentences. The move cut jail populations to 86 percent of capacity within a few weeks, but that number crept back up as more people were sentenced to jail time.
To ease the crowding in jails, local officials have started releasing a handful of its lowest-risk inmates from jail, monitoring them with home confinement and GPS tracking.
Since that particular alternative-custody program started in June, only a few of the 40 released offenders were returned to jail for failing to follow the rules. And none of the 40 offenders has committed new crimes, Brown said.
As for the rise in crime rates over the first half of 2011 in San Diego, Brown said there is "no evidence that points back" to realignment as the cause.
"We can't look at that information in a vacuum," said Brown, adding that crime trends must be looked at over a longer period to get perspective. "It's too early to tell what is causing it."
A criminal justice watchdog with the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said she believes local efforts to address the massive changes from realignment are "on the right track."
"There is all so much in the works, and I believe San Diego County has the best of intentions," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli with the ACLU. "The plan here makes sense and it looks good. However, it's the early days and the devil is in the details."