Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall said this weekend that Covid is sparking “a massive increase in abnormal behaviors” among citizens, attributable to pandemic fatigue and shelter in place orders. These human behaviors play out in small ways – at first – like shorter fuses on anger, and increased substance abuse. When these issues are not addressed effectively, Kendall said, they often bloom into bigger problems that his deputies have to face every day, like domestic violence, road rage, assault, and murder. And in a perfect storm scenario, these pressures have exacerbated systemic problems that were already pushing an overburdened criminal justice and jail system to the limits.
Kendall outlined societal and legal changes that he contends have come together in the Covid storm in a scenario that poses an array of dangers for all citizens. He noted that the California State Prison system has been under Federal Court orders for more than a decade now to reduce over-crowded facilities. But failure at many levels of government to step up with effective alternatives, like constructing new jails or implementing community based mental health and substance abuse treatment, have pushed the system to the brink of disaster. He said the State no longer accepts low-level convicts who have been sentenced to state prison, but instead redirects those inmates right back to the county of origin to serve long stretches — anywhere from one to seven years — inside county jails that were never designed or equipped to handle long-term warehousing of human beings, some of them dangerous.
One effect is that much harder criminals are hobnobbing with minor offenders in county jails for years at a time, and indeed triggering the release of these more less serious offenders back into society because of severe overcrowding in the county jail systems across the state. He said that the money that the State pays the county — $94 per inmate, per day — does not even cover medical costs for these individuals, not to mention staff payroll and benefits, food, and building maintenance. Kendall called this scandalous in the face of public outcry over privatization of prisons, because the current situation virtually ensures further contracting of services to for-profit corporations because overstretched counties are simply not able to cope. And so the process continues to spiral downward.
A concrete example of the trickle-down problems created by this system cited by Kendall was his inability to answer a reporter’s inquiry as to the whereabouts of Marc Lucas. Lucas, an Albion resident on parole from state prison, was arrested on August 1 by deputies following a 14 day manhunt and armed standoff with a small army of first responders, in which he soaked himself in gasoline and threatened to kill himself and everyone around him.
When asked whether Lucas was still in custody — word on the street had it that he might already be back out — Kendall was not able to answer off the top of his head. (Subsequent investigation by your intrepid reporter established that Lucas is, in fact, still in custody.) He contended that in prior yeas he could have answered that question with assurance: a man facing the long laundry list of serious felonies like Lucas would be in custody. But with the added pressures of Covid, many who ordinarily would be in custody are not.
This contributes to the related challenge of Kendall's inability to even process and book offenders, like drunk and disorderly, or meth or heroin possession into custody. Instead, these people are triaged into either verbal warnings from officers or issued misdemeanor citations and never arrested. This gap – the inability to arrest and interdict these individuals on “low-level” offenses – results in problems that grow.
And Covid-related pressures come on top of the steady drumbeat of news events that trigger people already on the edge right over that edge and into damaging criminal excursions. The Sheriff was certain that citizens would be interested to hear that the firestorms currently engulfing the region, while initially sparked by multiple lightening strikes into bone-dry timber and underbrush – have been supplemented by the active participation of at least three different arsonists in Mendocino County recently. Sheriff's deputies have arrested three people in just the past week, each of them accused of starting multiple fires across the inland corridor in apparent “copy-cat” style fire attacks. These people are highly opportunistic and often exploit weaknesses exposed during a crisis.
And Kendall noted a brutal gun murder had occurred last week in his hometown of Covello, a place severely impacted with chroic social problems exacerbated by Covid.
In the exclusive interview with the AVA, the Sheriff said that on the positive side, he and his deputies are noticing far greater compliance with masking requirements ordered by state and local public health officials to limit the surge in Covid cases. He feels this is a “great example”of a policy that can be effectively enforced and regulated by social and peer pressure. On moral issues like face coverings, the Sheriff said gentle persuasion by “kindly grandparent-types” works far better, it turns out, than regulatory intervention by uniformed and armed law enforcement officers.
And in a follow-up to the Marc Lucas story, the Sheriff cited another ray of hope. He said that the time is coming “soon” when he will be able to send a trained behavioral health person on every crisis team response in the County. He argues that the presence of more services, in the form of substance abuse, mental health counseling, and on-site delivery of services and tools from people trained and experienced in conflict resolution and deescalation will be of very great value.
After many years of work and considerable financial resources directed at Measure B (the initiative approved by county voters several years ago to fund metal health resources with a half-cent sales tax) Kendall says we are getting “close to the day” when citizens will be able to see some payoff for that investment. But we are not quite there yet.