Wall Street Journal: Santa Clara County Prepares for Influx of Inmates Into Jails

The not so good news: WSJ reports that Santa Clara County sends more people to prison than any other Bay Area County. The good news: Our County is going through a process to relieve ourselves of that distinction, and other counties from across the state are watching to see how transformative we can be in our local criminal justice strategies, particularly over the next couple months…

Santa Clara County officials hope county-run services such as this San Jose support group aimed primarily at women on probation will reduce the likelihood that participants will wind up incarcerated.

Bobby White, August 4, 2011

Santa Clara County is hastily drawing up plans to accommodate about 3,000 new inmates and parolees slated to move to county supervision from the state’s control this fall under a major shake-up of the California prison system.

Gov. Jerry Brown last month signed into law a bill that calls for jailing offenders who commit low-level crimes in county lockups instead of state prisons. The law, which also requires counties, rather than the state, to supervise newly released low-level inmates, was prodded by a Supreme Court ruling in May ordering California to sharply reduce prison overcrowding.

While all California counties face the mandate starting in October, Santa Clara sends more inmates to the state prison system than the Bay Area’s other counties—and thus will see more inmates move to its jurisdiction from the state. The shift means Santa Clara will now play a far larger role in housing and supervising offenders.

The mandate will tax the county’s jail and parole system, sending costs higher, officials say. As other Bay Area penal agencies scramble to plan for their own influx of new offenders many will be watching how Santa Clara copes with the shift.

“It’s really going to change how we do things,” says Laurie Smith, Santa Clara County sheriff.

Santa Clara’s system currently houses nearly 3,600 inmates in lockups designed for 3,900. But under the new plan the county will need to retain about 700 inmate spots that in the past would have been sent to state prisons, requiring it to find some 400 additional beds. And the mixture of light-, medium- and maximum-security offenders in the county jails—each requiring separate facilities—will change.

Officials say they will need to reconfigure the county’s lockups to handle the new load, a move likely to require early releases or lighter sentences for some inmates convicted of minor crimes. The state plans to give the county $13 million in the first year to fund the change, but county officials say they are unsure if that amount is adequate.

“We don’t know if the state’s plans are fully funded or not, but what’s very clear is that more prisoners are coming and we have to do something about it,” said Sheila Mitchell, probation chief for Santa Clara, who will be overseeing the transition.

She said as the county takes on greater responsibility for its inmates some sentencing policies are likely to change. Such changes, including trimming some of Santa Clara’s sentencing terms for drug offenses, are being discussed by a recently created county oversight committee, Ms. Mitchell said.

In addition, Santa Clara County will take over from the state about 2,300 parolees, on top of its existing case load. That also is expected to raise costs. To contend with the influx the county plans to expand electronic-monitoring programs, which track offenders through global positioning devices.

Santa Clara officials also are discussing how to expand social-service, employment and health programs for newly released offenders to reduce the likelihood they will end up behind bars again. The county plans to assign a case manager to each new offender slated to come under county supervision.

California currently supervises about 161,000 inmates and 100,000 current parolees. But starting in October, people newly convicted of low-level crimes will enter county jails—an estimated 75,000 people over the next few years, according to California’s Department of Corrections. Meanwhile, about 26,500 newly released low-level offenders will be supervised by county officials.

Each of the state’s 58 counties must craft a strategy to tackle the governor’s plan. The approach has some criminal-justice experts concerned about possible differences in inmate treatment between affluent counties and those that have struggled to house offenders.

“As every county makes up its own rules—who goes on probation, who goes to state prison, who goes to jail and for how long—you will likely see big disparities between some counties,” says Barry Krisberg, director of research and policy at the Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at University of California, Berkeley.

While the Oct. 1 deadline isn’t far away, Ms. Mitchell said Santa Clara’s planning remains in its early stages. The county won’t know until September the names of parolees that will shift to county supervision, a lag that could hold up connecting inmates with services and programs.

“We think we can do a better job than what the state is doing, but it’s not going to be a seamless transition,” she said. “There will be some bumps in the road.”

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