Monday, May 21, 2012

(Santa Barbara/San Luis Obispo) State prison inmates add to SB, SLO county jail problems

By Brian Bullock - Staff Writer - Santa Maria Times

County jails on the Central Coast are overcrowded, understaffed and insufficient for the inmate population forced into them by Assembly Bill 109, according to reports from both the Santa Barbara County Probation Department and the San Luis Obispo County Grand Jury.

State legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 109 into law in 2011 in response to direction from the U.S. Supreme Court to reduce over-crowding in the state’s 33 prisons. The legislation designed to reduce inmate populations in state prisons has forced more offenders into county jails which is exacerbating problems in those facilities.

“AB 109, or public safety realignment, brings the most significant changes in state corrections and the criminal justice system in over 30 years,” Santa Barbara County Chief Probation Officer Beverly Taylor told the county Board of Supervisors last week. The first six months has resulted in a considerable increase in work load due to this shift in responsibility, requiring a change as to how business is done.”

Taylor said the changes range from simple forms to overhauling the courts sentencing structure. Impacts of those changes will ultimately affect the courts, the Sheriff’s Office, Probation Department, and both the District Attorney’s and Public Defenders offices.

Lt. Charles Powell, in Santa Barbara, said the influx of AB 109 inmates has the Sheriff’s Department scrambling to provide both housing and services. He said the county had projected an overall increase of 125 inmates as a result of AB 109, which kicked in Oct. 1 last year. It is now housing 189 additional inmates, 50 percent more than originally anticipated.

“Our average daily population in the jail is increasing dramatically and we’re really struggling with how to deal with that type of population,” Powell said.

SLO overcrowded too

Similarly, the San Luis Obispo County Jail, which the State Board of Corrections says can hold 518 inmates, had 660 on Oct. 31 following the transfer of AB 109 inmates.

The women’s jail is inadequate for the numbers of inmates it’s seeing, too. When there are more than 40 inmates, some women are forced to sleep on mattresses on the floor, the grand jury report said.

The report concluded that “overcrowding at the jail is a continuing observable fact, particularly for women inmates. Staff and inmates agreed that the inmate population is increasing at the jail due to the state realignment mandate.”

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said AB 109 has added to problems of an already overcrowded county jail. He said the jail’s average daily population is 938 inmates in a jail with a capacity rated for 788.

Brown said the jail is operating at 119 percent of capacity, when it should be at 88 percent.

“Our jail remains significantly inadequate for our own county population, let alone for the additional inmates whose responsibility we have now taken on as a result of AB 109,” Brown said, adding the incoming inmates have forced the early release of other inmates.

So far this year the county has released 266 offenders early, compared to 220 at this time last year. He said many AB 109 inmates cannot be released early, so the incoming inmates are forcing the early release of many offenders into electronic monitoring programs.

Brown said the department is rapidly running out of inmates who would be considered for early release.

Santa Barbara County has seen a 70 percent increase in the number of inmates on electronic monitoring programs. Among them are 15 AB 109 inmates.

Powell said the courts, along with the Probation and Sheriff’s departments, are working on thinning the jail population with alternative sentencing.

The San Luis Obispo County Grand Jury also concluded that “costs and workload for inmate services are increasing, particularly in the area of medical and mental care.”

Hiring a slow process

Providing some of those services in Santa Barbara County has been exacerbated by a delay in hiring additional custody officers and contracting with local agencies for drug and alcohol services.

Hiring additional custody deputies has also proven to be a challenge for the Sheriff’s Department, according to Brown. Because of the exhaustive hiring procedures, which include a battery of tests, background checks and a 10-week academy, many deputies aren’t ready to go to work for six months to a year after beginning the process.

Brown said he doesn’t expect the jail’s staffing level to get much better. During the recent process of trying to hire 23 new custody deputies, 15 others have left the department either through retirements or other job opportunities.

The county has received more than 50 applications from state correctional officers who were laid off because of AB 109. But Brown said doing background checks on these officers, who may have worked at several different facilities, is slow at best.

The Santa Maria jail hasn’t been much help in relieving inmate overcrowding. And Brown said he doesn’t expect the department to get any additional funding in the county’s 2012-13 budget to keep the jail open any more than the part-time hours it currently keeps. With just 20 beds the Sheriff called full-time beds, it wouldn’t thin the inmate population enough to make a big difference.

Support programs hard to find

The county’s effort to get some low level offenders — non-serious, non-violent, non-sex offenders which Taylor called NX3s — out of jail and into treatment programs has also been slow.

Taylor said the county has contracted with the Good Samaritan Shelter for services in Lompoc and Santa Maria, but added that finding other programs has been difficult because they either don’t meet county standards or are already at capacity.

San Luis Obispo County faces an additional problem with patients from Atascadero State Hospital being transferred to the jail. The grand jury report found that two-thirds of the inmates are on prescription medication, which increases the workload for jail personnel.

Taylor said while the courts haven’t yet felt the impact of AB 109, they are working with corrections and law enforcement by moving to sentences that feature both incarceration — in shorter lengths — and supervised release programs.

Ultimately the success or failure of public safety realignment rests with money from Sacramento.

“The assurance we have is the governor’s commitment to the funding and it is included in the proposal that he’s putting on the ballot for this fall,” said Chandra Wallar, Santa Barbara County chief executive officer.

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