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Crime and treatment 

Many felons are skipping prison to serve time at county jails, where self-improvement is king

Hold onto your butts, everybody: Sacramento passed sweeping legislation last year that’s actually working.

Under the Criminal Justice Realignment Act (AB 109), felons convicted of non-violent, non-sexual, and non-serious offenses won’t be locked inside a sprawling compound where sophisticated criminals and hardened gang members roam the yard looking for fresh meat. Instead, they’ll be sentenced to long stints at county jails. Before AB 109, the most time anyone could serve in jail was a year. Those with longer sentences were shipped off to prison.

“We have a better chance of preventing them from getting to that next step,” SLO County Sheriff Ian Parkinson told New Times. “County jail is like a community college for criminals.

“The university is right across the street,” he said, referring to the California Men’s Colony.

A 2011 Pew Center report found that 57.8 percent of California’s released inmates were back in custody within three years. That cycle of repeat offences pushed the state’s prison population to twice its capacity, a level of overcrowding that violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, according to a federal court order issued in August 2009 and reaffirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court last May.

The courts ordered California to reduce its total number of inmates from 150,000 to 110,000 over a period of two years. The state couldn’t simply let 40,000 felons run free, so legislators instigated AB 109 on Oct. 1 of last year to funnel new convictions away from the prisons. In the eight months since, the total prison population has dropped by 14,000.

The catch, though, is that county jails were facing the same overcrowding issue. According to a recent grand jury report, SLO County Jail has sufficient space to house 518 inmates. When the realignment process began, the jail had an Average Daily Population (ADP) of 660 inmates, and the average now hovers around 720, with many inmates sleeping on makeshift beds that consist of little more than mattresses strewn across concrete floors.

“It’s not an ideal situation, but this place isn’t designed to be Disneyland,” Parkinson said.

AB 118, a companion bill to AB 109, requires that the state set aside about 1 percent of its sales tax revenue to assist counties with realignment. SLO County received $2.4 million last year and expects to get another $4 million in 2012. It’s a lot of coin, but SLO didn’t see a dime until a few weeks after the law took effect. A Community Corrections Partnership Executive Committee—consisting of the sheriff, district attorney, chief probation officer, and other leading county safety officials—developed a plan to spend the money that included a jail expansion, new treatment programs, and hiring 15 correctional deputies and a correctional sergeant. Those new hires are just now finishing their training and being used on the floor.

“We’ve been playing catch up since October,” Parkinson said.

Two modular trailers have been retrofitted as a temporary fix to address overcrowding in the women’s jail, where 18 inmates regularly sleep on mattresses laid between permanent cots. Construction of an entirely new women’s jail, which will house up to 193 inmates, is expected to begin in September and last for about three years.

When that project is complete, the current women’s jail will be remodeled to expand medical and mental services to all inmates; the current medical center will become a cellblock with room for 155 men; and the modular trailers will be used to let more inmates take advantage of the Honor Farm, where low-risk, well-behaved inmates enjoy limited freedom to participate in outdoor activities, work in the jail’s kitchen, and even leave the facility to work on county road projects.

The state agreed to give SLO County $25 million to fund the expansions back in 2009, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Joshua Horner, 38, has been to prison six times, and without AB 109, he would have gone back after getting caught with two methadone pills this March. The return to prison would have come with an expensive re-entry evaluation for dental, medical, and mental health issues, but under the new law, he can serve his eight-month sentence in the county lock up. On June 1, he was on the Honor Farm participating in an “Alternatives to Violence Project” with roughly 20 other inmates. Sheriff’s officials say the project reduces write-ups for altercations in jail by 60 percent and recidivism by 50 percent. The 2 1/2-day workshop focuses on conflict resolution through compromise and consideration of other points of view. During a role-playing exercise, the hard scowls of tattooed men in matching blue shirts gave way to big grins and loud laughs. For a moment, none of them looked like inmates.

“It’s a really good class. I’ve learned a whole new way of thinking in just two days,” Horner said. “It’s a privilege to be out here. These programs can change your life if you really want to change.”

The Alternatives to Violence Project is just one of a slew of new programs that’s been instituted at the jail since the county began receiving millions in realignment money. Lt. Michele Cole said the jail has expanded substance abuse treatment, general education development classes, and workplace readiness training while adding art, creative writing, meditation, and even yoga. A new five-week jail treatment program, “Planning for Change,” wrapped up May 31. Its purpose was to teach inmates to take responsibility for their addictions and avoid triggers.

“All components have to be integrated,” Cole said. “You can’t give them a job without addressing anti-social behavior and thinking.”

Despite the heavy workload, officials throughout the county’s public protection department believe that AB 109 and the accompanying treatment programs will eventually serve to reduce the overall crime rate. Still, the adjustment hasn’t been easy. Assaults in the jail have doubled, and Parkinson said many were blatant attempts by inmates to get themselves transferred to the prison system they know and love.

And the change shifts the responsibility of non-violent, non-sexual, non-serious parolees to the county Probation Department, which has added 117 post-release offenders (roughly 10 percent) to SLO County’s system.

“There’s something you can’t quantify with this new population,” said Chief Deputy Probation Officer Robert Reyes. “They get out of prison, and they bring that attitude with them. Many of them are more criminally sophisticated and less willing to change.”

Probation was able to use its share of AB 109 money to hire four additional officers, and the remaining $630,000 went toward offender treatment programs and a Day Reporting Service Center that should open in August to provide a link between probationers and other county services.

Under the new law, anyone who violates his or her probation will be punished with a stint in jail, but there will be no second round of post-release supervision and no way to monitor for non-criminal violations like drinking alcohol or associating with known gang members.

“The long-term goal is reducing the inmate population,” Reyes said, “but without having short-term supervision, that’s a public safety concern.”

By giving post-release offenders a little leeway, officials are hoping to slow the revolving door and give inmates the chance to have a life after jail, an outcome that would improve public safety in the long run.

Staff Writer Nick Powell can be reached at npowell@newtimesslo.com.

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