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Realigning HumCo

Midway into its second year, the county’s prison/jail realignment program has increased rehabilitation assistance but law enforcement officials have said it’s also led to increases in crime.

So far the evidence is anecdotal. City and county police officials have told reporters that since realignment started in October of 2011, they’ve seen a “revolving door” of arrests and releases, with more criminals on the streets committing petty crimes as well as more serious crimes, like burglary.

Realignment shifts non-serious, non-violent and non-sexual felony offenders who previously would have been sentenced to state prisons to the County Correctional Facility. A mechanism to comply with a Supreme Court order to reduce overcrowding in state prisons, realignment has changed the county’s jail population, as offenders and parole violators who would have done time in prison under the former system now do so in county jail.

To make room for them, less serious offenders — those charged or convicted with misdemeanors and low-level felonies — are released under a “matrix” system that prevents jail overcrowding.

“There are more hardened criminals in jail — it’s continuing and it seems to be getting worse,” said Lt. Steve Knight, the county Sheriff’s Office’s public information officer.

Like police officials in Arcata and Eureka, Knight noted that some crime categories are trending upward. “We’re seeing an increase in theft-related crimes and it’s not unusual to see non-violent offenders arrested and released,” he said. “The criminals know this, too — they’ve actually told our officers, ‘It doesn’t matter, we’re going to get booked and released’.”

Knight added that “our deputies are definitely taking more burglary reports,” both for homes and vehicles, and he advised residents to be aware of what’s going on in their neighborhoods and to use lighting, dogs and alarm systems to prevent break-ins.

Deputies are “running from call to call more than they used to,” he added, and while Knight acknowledged the value of rehab programs, he said that without jail punishment, a deterrent effect is lacking.

“In the long term, it’s anybody’s guess where realignment is headed but right now, it’s not in a good direction,” he continued.

Bill Damiano, the county’s chief probation officer, cautioned against making unsubstantiated links between realignment and crime trends. He said the state’s Police Officers Association is “very interested in painting a picture of realignment as the cause of all the trends and the arrest data — which may or may not be true.”

The most relevant difference with realignment is that the offenders and parole violators who are sent to county jail rather than prison tend to get shorter sentences. “They’re under the county’s system rather than the state’s but if they’re still committing crime, it’s the same old, same old,” said Damiano.

Offenses like burglary are considered to be serious and, if someone’s home at the time, violent, he continued, and will be deemed as being worthy of jail time under realignment. Damiano said he’s heard of felony drug offenders being arrested and released, but he added that’s been going on since 2000, when voters passed Prop. 36.

“The smallest fish coming into jail are being released and the voters decided that,” he continued.

Damiano said realignment is often mistakenly identified as the cause of early prison releases. A Jan. 19 Sheriff’s Office press release detailing the arrest of Michael Walin, who was charged with attempting to murder a police officer, stated that he was released from prison due to realignment, but Damiano said that doesn’t happen — rather, people serve time in county jail for offenses that once would have yielded prison time.

Walin was in the Probation Department’s Post-Release Community Supervision program, however, and was wanted for violating its terms. “Yes, he was on PRCS and yes, we have individuals continuing to commit crimes,” said Damiano. “We have some very committed criminals in the county and they will continue to stay committed — but for the rest of the group, we’ll use our training, skills and proven practices to identify how we can help them turn their lives around.”

That involves immediate access to services like drug addiction rehab via the county’s Community Resource Center at 404 H Street in Eureka, where post-release rehabilitation programs have been expanded, diversified and headquartered at a single location. Using state realignment funding, the center’s been staffed with substance abuse and vocational counselors, mental health staff and a clinician.

Alternatives to jail like electronic monitoring have also been funded and the second year of realignment has seen first year funding more than doubled, to $3.4 million. With the passage of Prop. 30, the state’s funding commitment is etched into the California Constitution.

Realignment funding has also paid for expansion of the Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program and subsidization of the fees associated with it, contracts with drug treatment facilities and additional probation officers, including those who proactively work with inmates while they’re in jail.

Damiano believes the basis of realignment — having counties handle their own criminals — is valid. “We can do things better than we have done under the current system, I truly believe that,” he said. “And I’ve seen some miracles.”

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