Alameda County prepares for influx of inmates as state reduces prison population

Mule Creek State Prison, 2006 (Photo Courtesy of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)

Mule Creek State Prison, 2006 (Photo Courtesy of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)

Alameda County’s incarceration system may struggle to support the coming influx of inmates this July as California shifts the supervision of its prisoners from state to local facilities in order to meet a court-ordered prison population reduction strategy.

In May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that overcrowding in California’s 33 prisons has caused conditions that amount to “cruel and unusual punishment” in violation of the U.S. Constitution. The ruling ordered California to reduce its prison population by 32,000 over the next two years.

A process called “realignment” could satisfy this mandate by keeping future inmates convicted of nonviolent, nonsexual, non-serious crimes in county jails instead of sending them to state prison.  In the meantime, some current inmates will be permanently shifted from federal prisons to local jails. These inmates will serve out their entire sentence in local jails, while other inmates with low-offence violations will be released early to ease the burden on the penal system.

California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation OK’ing the realignment plan in April, but the state legislature has not yet funded the plan, which requires tax extensions and shifting public safety services to the local level, where most of the inmates would be housed. On Tuesday, California the governor’s office must provide the Supreme Court an action plan for how the state will reduce overcrowding.

Alameda County currently has 4,800 beds in its Dublin and Oakland jails, and an average daily population of 4,000. The county estimates its share of new inmates will range from 300 to 800 total in the next 18 months.

“We’ve tried to reduce our jail counts by attrition of inmates and reduction of citations,” said Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern. “Now we’ll be in a position where we can have an additional 800 inmates housed in our facilities.”

Ahern also said the county has managed to create space its jails by consolidating inmates’ living quarters and getting them to bunk with more people per cell.

But how counties will pay to house the new inmates remains a question. “We are concerned about funding,” said Ahern. “The initial funding that was reported to us was not adequate enough to house the inmates, let alone provide reentry programs.” Reentry programs, ranging from drug rehabilitation to job training and counseling, are used to help reintegrate offenders back to the community after having served a prison or jail sentence.

In the latest round of negotiations with the state, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation offered to reimburse counties around $68 a day to house inmates who have been shifted from federal facilities to local jails. Currently, the CDRC pays counties on contract $77 to house out of county inmates—or those who were arrested and cited in other counties—which covers essentials like housing, food, medical care and staff costs. But both the $77 and $68 figures leave out a budget for reentry programs. Along with other county officials, Ahern is working to get the state to dole out at least $84 a day per inmate when the shift of supervision goes in effect starting in July.

But where that money will come from is uncertain. Money would be shifted from CDCR to counties, but as part of a budget-saving effort, not all of it would be transferred; some would instead be used to balance out other parts of the state budget. “That part I understand,” said Alameda County Probation Chief Probation Officer David Muhammad, referring to the state’s need to save money, “But it’s got to be a reasonable amount where we can do the job, and the state can save some money.”

Governor Brown’s realignment plan supports administering justice locally, which Muhammad says can help lower the state’s 70 percent recidivism rate for all crimes. Realignment supporters hope having inmates closer to home and family will help make their transition from jail to the community smoother. Alameda County has launched a reentry program over the last couple of years, which is a network of community-based programs that are working to provide released inmates with more individualized social services than the state can often provide. “I think locals can do a much better job then what has happened through the state system,” Muhammad said. “But we have to get the appropriate funding.”

Probation departments across the state say they need more officers to supervise the thousands of low-level offenders coming their way, and more access to job training programs, education and housing for parolees to keep them from reentering the prison system. Counties like Alameda are expecting a billion dollars a year for five years from the state to fund the bigger population they expect to have after July. They say need the money to expand facilities and staff.

“The local systems are already significantly strained,” Muhammad said. The majority of Alameda County’s 15,000 adults on probation do not have a designated probation officer, Muhammad said. This is common across California county probation departments and jails, he said, which are operating below capacity due to a lack of funds to fully staff and maintain them.

Many county law enforcement officials knew it was only a matter of time before they’d have to keep more low-level offenders in county jails and to supervise more of them after they’re released. The state’s been talking about such a move since 2007 when a three-judge panel first met to consider reducing California’s prison population. The panel recommended that California continue working on prison reforms and rehabilitation programs to reduce the particularly high number of parolees returning to prison.

The Supreme Court did not specify how the state should reduce its prison population. Now counties with full jails are after state realignment money that would allow them build new local jails to house incoming inmates.

In 2007, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger introduced—and the legislature passed—AB 900 to lease revenue bonds to build tens of thousands of new prison and jail cells, increase out-of-state transfers which would let California prisoners be housed elsewhere, and expand programming to reduce recidivism.

Then earlier this year, Governor Brown introduced—and the legislature passed—two more assembly bills to give counties additional flexibility to access funding to increase local jail capacity, including AB 94, which lowers the amount that counties have pay in order to tap into state jail-construction money. Under the amendment, counties will only have to put up 10 percent of a jail’s overall cost, rather than 25 percent.

Without a threat of surpassing capacity in the future, Ahern said AB 900 is not as appealing for Alameda County as it for other counties with over-crowded jails. Even with up to 800 new inmates arriving in July, the county’s jails will still have room, and Ahern said they don’t have a need to build new facilities for now.

But Emily Harris with Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a coalition that advocates for reducing state inmate populations through crime prevention programs and the elimination of the “three strikes” law and mandatory minimum sentencing, said she hopes that these assembly bills do not ignore the need to fund reentry services by spending money on building more jails. “This is an opportunity to provide better, more local services to people on parole,” she said about the court-ordered prison reduction. “We hope that it’s not just shuffling overcrowding from state prison to the county jail, but instead used as an opportunity to support community-based, independent services as [inmates] come home.”

When the governor’s office reveals their prison population reduction plan to the Supreme Court on Tuesday, shifting inmates from state to local facilities will be an important part of that plan. Local law enforcement officials will continue to be in negotiations with the state to determine how much funding they need to adequately supervise each person on probation in the community.

But in the meantime, Muhammad is optimistic that realignment is the right move for a bloated prison system. “I think the locals can be far more innovative and creative then the state has been,” he said, “which is already a low bar.”

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