County jails forced to take state prison inmates

When the state of California voted to reroute many prisoners who would have gone to state prison to county jails late last year, alarm waves cascaded through all the state’s 58 counties. Although the state assured the counties it would fund this “realignment” of responsibility and that the only prisoners released in such a manner would not be violent or sex offenders, local county officials were not reassured.

For how long would the money last, they asked. What about the safety of residents and prison guards if county jails were asked to hold the kinds of prisoners normally sent to state prison? What happens when a state prisoner sentenced to 10 years has to serve out his/her sentence in a county jail designed to hold prisoners for at maximum of one year? What happens when one 10-year prisoner takes up a bed for a decade that otherwise would have been free for more county prisoners? What if there are four or five of these 10-year prisoners? How will the counties deal with the inevitable crowding?

But the state didn’t relent and despite all these questions, many of them left unanswered, AB 109 went into effect on Oct. 1 — without the provision pushed by the counties for a Constitutional amendment to fund the realignment.

Former, long-time Mono County Sheriff Lt. (and now District 2 County Supervisor) Hap Hazard is not happy. He’s been fighting against AB 109 for more than a year.

And he will continue to fight.

“What do we do with these people?” he said. “It used to be that when they sent the bad guys to the state prisons, they didn’t have the ability to come to the counties and influence our local population of prisoners with their bad habits. We weren’t putting a local guy with a DUI in with hardened criminals. Even if these guys coming in aren’t violent (an argument used by the state to reassure the counties), they aren’t getting a 10- or 20-year sentence if they don’t have a strong criminal history. That protection (for the local prisoner population) is gone now.”
Taxpayers should be upset, too.
“We told them we didn’t want our local taxpayers paying for housing these long-time, hardcore criminals. But we don’t have a voice. We weren’t given a choice,” he said referring to the fact that Mono County’s Republican Legislators are in the minority.

To make matters worse, the Mono County 42-bed jail is already at near capacity, with plans on the books for a future jail expansion just to keep up with the current conviction rates. Add more incoming prisoners and the balance is thrown off.

“It’s the unknowns,” said Sheriff Rick Scholl. “There are just so many unknowns right now. We are all scrambling to get the data we need to know what this all will mean.”

While Mono County will not be hit as hard by the new law as other counties, the county will have to take on its share of new inmates.

“It inevitably means more prisoners coming through the system, no matter how creatively probation deals with it, or the judges and sentencing system deals with it (some ideas, such as using GPS bracelets to track sentenced criminals instead of putting them in the county jail are coming forward.),” Scholl said.

“And at a time of budget cuts, we aren’t going to be able to add more staff to take care of this.”

But he does know the amount the state has sent the counties won’t cover the cost of this realignment experiment.

“What about the inmate we have to give long-term medications to, things like that?” Scholl said. “No one has the answers yet to these kind of questions.”

In the meantime, the county is scrambling to come up with the kind of creative solutions that will help to lessen the impact of the unwelcome law.

But it will take some time, and in the meantime, the flow of inmates to the county jail will continue.