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County Jail may soon face inmate overload

jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Instead of heading to the big house, some criminals may be doing their time in the local county jail.

After a new state policy goes into effect Oct. 1, lower-level offenders convicted of certain nonviolent, nonserious crimes would serve their time at the jail off Highway 1 instead of being sent to state prison.

Since Gov. Jerry Brown declared his intent to pursue the new prison realignment, county officials have been debating how best to house, feed, educate, counsel and monitor an estimated 140 inmates by mid-2013.

The change will add more people to an already cramped jail facility, expand probation officers’ caseloads and increase the workload in the court system, which is already overextended.

A new woman’s jail has been approved, but its opening is a few years away.

The state is expected to give the county about $2.5 million, which various county departments will divvy up to meet their needs through next June.

To prepare, sheriff’s officials will refurbish two modular units that once housed inmates, increase rehabilitation efforts and hire 13 to 15 correctional deputies. Probation and court officials plan to use state money to train judges on sentencing guidelines and to hire more probation officers.

Brown’s plan to direct thousands of lower-level offenders from state prison to county jails is intended to help California save money and comply with a federal court order to reduce its prison population.

Brown wants to place a measure before voters in November 2012 that would guarantee the long-term funding that counties will need to make the shift work.

The local impact of the shift won’t be known for a few months, but Undersheriff Martin Basti believes it will be a “slow buildup.” Some people who are currently in custody at the jail while going through the court process could remain after sentencing.

The shift affects county departments that provide services to inmates, including county drug and alcohol services, the District Attorney’s Office, mental health, probation, social services and Superior Court. The realignment plan also redirects the oversight of some state parolees to local probation officers.

County District Attorney Gerald Shea said he views the parole reform as a valid and necessary change, but expressed concern with the sentencing reform.

“I think the sentencing reform could potentially fill up County Jail and cause the early release of some jail inmates,” Shea said, which could impact public safety. The state is currently experiencing its lowest crime rates since 1968, he said.

“It is a concern,” Sheriff Ian Parkinson said of jail overcrowding.

Parkinson said bed space will be available this fiscal year for 78 inmates, but sheriff’s officials are also working on other programs, including expanding a home detention program, to free up space.

This first year of the shift, he said, “will give us an idea of what’s ahead.” If more space is needed, Parkinson plans to open an additional 100 beds at barracks sometimes used to house inmates who serve time only on weekends.

Basti said sheriff’s officials estimated the number of new inmates they may house based on how many lower-level offenders from San Luis Obispo County were sentenced to state prison in 2010. But that number could change.

“We may not have 120 (inmates). We may have more than that. It’s a moving target,” Basti said. “In the subsequent year, some are released and some are coming in. We don’t know exactly what the population average will be.”

The jail’s average daily population last year was 558 inmates; on Thursday, it housed 650 inmates, including 79 women, Basti said. An additional 48 people are serving time through an alternative work program or on home detention.

Normally inmates who have been convicted serve a year or less in County Jail; the redirected inmates could stay for three years or longer, depending on their sentencing guidelines and prior offenses.

Court Executive Officer Susan Matherly said she hopes to provide training for judges on the details of sentencing guidelines in the new legislation. Court staff also will need to revise forms and orders for sentencing to reflect options in the law for defendants.

Once at County Jail, Basti said local officials will provide programs for inmates to give them counseling and new skills.

Officials have made the programs a priority, he said, because county jails are designed differently than state prisons: The cells are smaller, and there’s less yard space. They weren’t designed to hold long-term inmates, so keeping these inmates occupied is essential, he said.

“When the jail was originally built, the priority was not programs; the priority was to house them,” Basti said. “We’re looking at programming to change their behavior, and we’ll have more opportunities for that because they’ll be here longer.”

Inmates already can take GED courses, a job skills class, a food preparation course and others. They also have access to drug and alcohol counseling and a parenting course. A new class on violence prevention and anger management will start next week.

Basti said he anticipates that new hires could start in November. About 90 people are currently competing for 13 to 15 spots.

Probation Chief Jim Salio expects to supervise 136 additional would-be state parolees who were convicted of nonviolent and nonserious crimes. Some low-level sex offenders are also included in that group.

Department officials plan to hire more staff to keep caseloads for probation officers at the same levels of about 50 probationers per officer, Salio said.

Salio said officers will likely supervise an additional 15 people after the law takes effect Oct. 1, and then 10 to 20 people per month afterward.

He said that probation officers are also researching programs such as Thinking for Change, a type of counseling that aims to address life choices which commonly influence acts of crime. Those include examining family situations, housing, and the people criminals surround themselves with to help keep their lives on track.

This report contains material from The Associated Press.

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