Thursday, February 25, 2016

Lanny Larson: Fresno County’s grand jury – what’s it all about?

It sounds simple enough: The Fresno County civil grand jury checks out complaints about local government and recommends ways to make things better.
However, as foreperson of the 2015-16 grand jury, I want you to give you some idea of what being a grand juror really involves, so you’ll apply to become one.
Who are we?
This year’s 19 grand jurors have a long list of personal, career and public service achievement.
Most have advanced university degrees and are retired or nearly so, but you don’t have to be. Health care, education, government service, private business, communication, law enforcement, sales, information systems, union representation are in our backgrounds.
Mostly we’re north of 60 years old, ranging from mid-30s to past 80. We’re modestly diverse in ethnicity, religion and race. Only four have addresses outside Fresno and Clovis. Fewer than one-third are women, and we’re mostly around middle- to upper-middle-income.
We hope more applications for service will yield greater diversity.
Grand jurors serve one year but can request an additional year, which is up to the judge.
What do we do?
Under Superior Court guidance, we’re a citizen check on city, county, school and special district operations within Fresno County, evaluating all complaints to determine which we’ll be able to investigate.
Committees work up reports that are approved by the full grand jury and then published, along with state-mandated responses. We do not issue minority reports.
The civil grand jury doesn’t bring charges like its criminal counterpart, which disappoints folks who want to “put the bad guys away.” Instead, we shine a light on local government and let citizens implement change.
People ask what we’re up to, but we take an oath to keep our deliberations confidential.
Besides our meetings, which are punctuated by comments from jurors’ many perspectives, we visit the Pleasant Valley State Prison and county and municipal facilities, and we hear presentations from various agencies.
How much time’s involved?
We meet at least half a day per week. Beyond that, time is needed for committee work, reviewing documents, interviewing witnesses and writing reports. So grand jury service can exceed 40 hours a month.
However, we encourage grand jurors to take time away for vacations, medical issues, work and more, knowing it’s easy to catch up online.
We’re not in it for the money. Just like other jurors, we’re paid $15 a day plus mileage.
We’re subject to the same financial disclosure and conflict-of-interest statutes as most officials we investigate.
What’s the reward?
The 2014-15 grand jury reports and responses illustrate the satisfaction I feel about grand jury service:
▪ Parlier Unified School District – The grand jury spotlighted governance, administration and business practices that were costly, but not improving classroom achievement. After the grand jury report, school trustees ordered investigations, the Fresno County Office of Education offered unprecedented help and there was a state assessment of the district. Most recommendations were adopted by the school board and are being implemented.
▪ Vacant housing blight in Fresno – The grand jury recommended that new efforts to enforce city codes get significant priority and supporting resources. Unfortunately, blighted vacant properties and out-of-compliance occupied properties have made disturbing headlines recently. Time will tell whether the city is responding quickly enough after the grand jury brought more attention to it.
▪ Sanger governance – The grand jury found that there was a toxic environment in community governance threatening to undermine gains made in recent years. The mayor and city manager who helped move Sanger forward were casualties of government dysfunction. However, the City Council has implemented some recommendations.
▪ Pleasant Valley State Prison – The grand jury reported that the county’s only state prison was operating well. Several recommendations were implemented in the months between the grand jurors’ mandated annual inspection and publication of the report.
How can you serve?
Through March 4, the Superior Court is accepting applications for the 2016-17 grand jury from residents of Fresno County for at least one year, who are 18 or older and are proficient reading and speaking English. It’s not a requirement, but computer literacy is needed for confidential communication.
If you check all those boxes, please fill out an application obtained online at or by calling 457-1605.
Accepted applicants will be interviewed by a judge, undergo criminal background checks, and their names will be entered for random selection in June as a grand juror or alternate beginning July 1.
If you have the time and believe that our tax-supported local agencies must be held accountable to serve county residents as best as possible, you should apply. I’m confident you’ll find being a grand juror as rewarding as I have.
February 25, 2016
Fresno Bee
Valley Voices by Lanny Larson, foreperson of the 2015-16 Fresno County Grand jury

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Napa County urgently needs a new jail

Blog note: this article references a 2015 grand jury report on the need for a new jail.
For years, the Napa County Jail needed work.
And that was before the jailhouse rocked in the summer of 2014.
The damage sustained from that late August earthquake — a 6.0 temblor — made a serious need into an urgent one, says Napa County Supervisor Keith Caldwell.
Making the county’s case for a bond measure to fund a new jail facility, to an audience comprised mostly of business and civic leaders attending American Canyon’s State of the City event last month, Caldwell said that since he’s not running for re-election he can be completely forthcoming. He said the county’s No. 1 issue revolves around a 2015 grand jury report on the need for a new jail, and illustrated his points using a county-made presentation called “Better Corrections.”
Besides the serious earthquake damage, the Napa County Jail suffers from severe overcrowding (made worse by the quake), has an aging infrastructure and needs to improve services and programming, according to the grand jury report.
Built in 1976 and expanded in 1989, the facility has had no improvements done to in 25 years, Caldwell said. No beds have been added in that time, and there’s not enough space to provide mental health and rehabilitation services, according to Caldwell’s presentation.
This matters, since more than 30 percent of inmates have a diagnosed mental health issue requiring medication and/or special housing, the presentation notes.
The facility’s entire third floor was made unusable by the earthquake — more than a quarter of available inmate space, including skill training areas, Caldwell said. Officials are renting some bed space from Solano County, but that’s not only inconvenient, it’s also expensive, he said.
“Overcrowding leads to early release, and creates dangerous conditions,” the presentation says.
From January 2011 through September 2014, the Napa and Solano county jails’ capacity was 264. It’s now 204, Caldwell said.
The problem is in large part the result of what’s called Prison Realignment, which reduces over-crowding in state penitentiaries by sending certain kinds of inmates to county jails.
“Napa County has an urgent need for a new jail,” Caldwell said. “Realignment has added many dangerous inmates to inadequate facilities. Officers have been assaulted. More mentally disturbed and addicted inmates are being sent to the Napa State Hospital,” a facility not designed for dangerous criminals but for people with mental health issues. Since realignment, those deemed unfit to stand trial and who would in the past have been kept in state prisons are now winding up at the state hospital, he said.
This changing inmate profile has resulted in a sharp increase in the number of inmate-on-officer assaults, according to the presentation. A graph shows there were five such assaults in 2011-2012. This had increased to more than 20 by 2013 and to nearly 35 last year.
In the face of realignment, the corrections department is making suggestions for alternatives to incarceration. One alternative that’s produced good results has been a job training, education and behavioral issues and substance abuse training program, which appears to have cut recidivism in half in the seven years it’s been operating, Caldwell said.
“We were the first in the state (to initiate this program) and it’s being repeated elsewhere,” he said. “It’s producing a 97 percent employment rate after graduation from the program. It’s a great program. We’d like to be able to replicate the program in the jail, but this 40-year-old jail doesn’t have the space.”
Research has found that stable employment reduces the rate of re-offense; that educational and job training “helps close the revolving door” of incarceration and release. The new facility would offer multiple classroom spaces and allow officials to focus on helping inmates make successful transitions into the community, he said.
And while so far these classes have only been available for those in alternative types of custody like house arrest, the good news is that the planned new facility will include space for replicating the program, Caldwell said.
“We’ve have learned that our program works,” and the new facility will include space for individual and group therapy, alcohol and drug treatment and education, meant to help “break the cycle of crime,” he said.
Napa County’s “state-leading,” “data-driven programs,” have proven since 2004 to reduce recidivism to less than 15 percent among felony offenders, compared to statewide, where more than half of all inmates return to prison within three years of release, according to county figures.
Officials are also looking at the wider picture — trying to prevent young offenders from continuing down the path that leads to long-term incarceration.
“It’s critical to reach young adult offenders aged 18 to 25 and provide a pathway out of the criminal justice system,” the presentation notes.
To do that, officials are coordinating with school districts, social service providers and law enforcement to help those going the wrong direction, “including many formerly in foster care or child protective services, get their lives on the right track.”
Napa County’s Juvenile Hall was designed to hold 50 inmates and usually has between 30 to 50, Caldwell said. It now houses just 12 — including only two from American Canyon — a development Caldwell attributes to the implementation of a similar education/training program.
“We’ve taken that same kind of program and with our own staff, started doing that same kind of program, replicated that with our own staff at Juvenile Hall,” he said. “It’s quite a reduction.”
Another sub-population needing special attention are veterans, the presentation says.
“The old jail lacks facilities and programs needed by military veterans from recent conflicts as well as Desert Storm and Vietnam,” it says. “Specialized mental health counseling, including for (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and trauma treatment is needed.”
A new facility offers opportunities for partnerships with the county Veterans Services Office to help inmates gain access to Veterans Administration benefits and local resources and veterans groups, officials said.
A spot for a new jail — 23 acres of Syar Industries, Inc. property, between the Napa State Hospital and Napa Valley College — has been purchased for $6 million, Caldwell said.
One benefit of this site is that it gets the jail out of downtown Napa, officials said.
But, while the land is paid for, the jail facility still needs to be built and that’s going to cost an estimated $200 million, he said. The county already has $50 million and hopes to raise $150 million from a county ballot measure in June, Caldwell said.
Napa County officials continue working to find funding from multiple sources, according to the presentation. The project qualified for $17 million in outside jail construction funding.
Officials note that contracting beds, as is being done with Solano County, could cost “up to an average of $5 million more annually than the construction of a new local facility,” adding that if the bond fails, the new jail will likely require using money now earmarked for providing other community services.
“We’re polling right now to see where they’re at with this,” Caldwell said. “We may have to do it in phases.”
When asked if concerns have been expressed over the new site’s proximity to Napa Valley College, Caldwell said most people understand the nearly perfect placement of this facility.
“It's across a four-lane highway from the college,” he said. “The rock quarry is the closest neighbor and the next closest is the state hospital.”
February 20, 2016
Vallejo Times-Herald
By Rachel Raskin-Zrihen