The Tribune’s special report on the impacts of prison realignment on the San Luis Obispo County Jail (Aug. 19) was generally well done, but some additional clarity on a couple of points is warranted.
The interview with Dixie Howell indicated that she could get six weeks of credit for every class she took in prison. What was missing was that state prisoners are limited to six weeks of such credits every 12 months.
I estimate that state prison inmates can be released having served as little as 39 percent of their sentence, while those offenders sentenced to the counties under realignment will have to complete 50 percent of their sentences.
However, under realignment the courts and sheriffs have some discretion in the sentencing and management of inmates. The courts can give split sentences, with an initial period served with the sheriff and a “tail” with the probation department. The sheriff further has the option of using noncustody programs, such as home detention and community work, while offenders are still considered in the sheriff’s custody.
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If offenders break the terms of their noncustody program, they can be returned to jail as an administrative procedure without court oversight. The Tribune article mentions the sheriff’s alternative sentencing programs but does not give any indication of the extent of their use.
I also want to add that sentences of greater than one year require an entirely different approach to dealing with the people incarcerated. It is particularly important to have inmates who are incarcerated for long periods engaged in meaningful activity, whether it is work, education or behavioral programs. Most jails have not been designed for that level of programming. Much shorter sentenced lengths of stay prior to realignment limited the feasible duration of programs. Also, using jail programs to foster good inmate behavior is not as crucial when the average length of stay is typically two months.
The existing facility does not provide the amount of program space with secure access needed for the range of inmates arriving under realignment. The honor farm probably does not have sufficient capacity to add the better-behaved inmates arriving under realignment, and I would argue that the jail really doesn’t have sufficient higher security housing with access to program space for those inmates who pose greater behavioral problems.
Realignment has helped the state reduce the prison population by shifting some of the burden to the counties. The state is sending less money to the counties than it has been spending for the same offenders to begin with, and I am highly skeptical that state reimbursements will keep pace with local demand over time (look what happened with the deinstitutionalization of mental health and developmentally delayed populations in the 1970s).
While adequate facilities will certainly be needed to meet this mandate, the county will have to show more innovation than the state could muster to meet this new responsibility without adversely affecting existing county services.
Greg Barker is a registered architect with more than 25 years of experience providing correctional planning services, including needs assessments, master plans and architectural programs.