Orange County Grapples With Wave of State Parolees

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An array of probation and police officials Tuesday updated the Orange County Board of Supervisors on the implementation of Gov. Jerry Brown’s unprecedented transfer of nearly 1,500 low-level prisoners and parolees from state supervision to local jails and streets.

In Orange County, the shift — commonly referred to as AB 109 for the Assembly bill that authorized it — has probation officials scrambling to devise ways of monitoring additional felons in an environment of limited funds.

On Tuesday, Orange County Chief Probation Officer Steven Sentman told supervisors that since last October when the program began, the county has received nearly 60 percent more state prisoners than originally expected — 1,492 nonviolent felons rather than the original estimate of 939.

More than $25 million has been spent implementing AB 109, with money going to the sheriff, Probation Department, Health Care Agency and local police departments.

That funding is expected to double in the 2012-13 fiscal year, but on Tuesday most agencies said the resources aren’t enough.

“Until the final impacts are realized and full implementation has occurred, funding allocations will need to be flexible,” Sentman said. “That money goes quickly.”

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Public Defender Frank Ospino both say they are facing a huge legal challenge with so many new cases and limited public resources.

“Realignment is the greatest paradigm shift since 1976, when sentencing laws were abolished,” Ospino told supervisors. That public policy is still evolving with hundreds of bills in the Legislature amending it regularly, he said.

“Just keeping up on current legislation is a daunting task,” Ospino said.

Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, who told supervisors she starts each morning by checking her inmate counts, said the number coming from the state has been much larger that expected. While that doesn’t shock her, Hutchens said, local jails aren’t built to house long-term inmates, which means local agencies need to shift their focus to prevention in this new environment.

Assistant Sheriff Mike James told supervisors that local jails are getting 293 prisoners every month from the state, which is more than double the 143 that the state estimated.

While the agency was shutting down jail beds last year, the prisoner shift now constitutes about 20 percent of total inmates and is using up space quickly.

The longer they are there, the more prisoner litigation, James said.

The jails have problems with disability access and already face current litigation. They also face myriad issues with inmate medical care as well as separation issues due to gangs and other problems.

Another big issue, James said, is the reimbursement rates. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, known as ICE, pays twice the amount for immigration detainees than the $71 rate paid by the state.

Local police chiefs are apprehensive because under state supervision, they had a statewide database for checking criminals encountered on city streets. Today there’s nothing similar for the felons under county probation supervision, Garden Grove Police Chief Kevin Rany told supervisors.

“As broken as the parole system was, it allowed for a statewide database,” Rany said.

Rany and other police chiefs also noted that property crime has increased in cities across Orange County since the program began while violent crimes have not. “There’s no question that crime is increasing. We need to do a better job of figuring out why,” he said.

While Rany said that complete statistics on the offenses of AB 109 parolees have not yet been compiled, there are data for some cities. Anaheim for example, has had 28 of 156 parolees commit more crimes.

Rany said that many of the low-level offenders are actually hardened criminals. “As we were looking at some of the packets [of inmates sent to local jails], you look at the prior convictions, and they are startling, alarming and concerning.”

Health care officials are also scrambling to respond to the added costs of addressing the health care needs of these prisoners, whose lifestyles often carry expensive medical treatment costs.

County Health Care Agency Director Mark Refowitz told supervisors that costs will rise with long-term prisoners. To date, 600 individuals have been referred for assessment, with 67 percent having substance abuse issues and 23 percent having mental issues.

Since October, the county jail also has received 36 people with HIV, 74 inmates with diabetes and 17 pregnant women.

“As this population increases, this will put pressure on our budget,” he said, noting that the shift means county officials have to change how they practice medicine in the jails.

Refowitz told supervisors they need to consider “shock claims” insurance to guard against large bills for illnesses like cancer, which are expensive to treat, and to even consider “compassionate release” for terminal patients “to die elsewhere than in the medical unit that’s being funded by the county.”

Meanwhile, drug treatment nonprofits have been decimated by the budget cuts of recent years, and the few left are telling supervisors they can’t handle the increased demands.

Ospino issued the starkest reminder to all his colleagues: It’s not as if the current system has been working. Nearly 60 to 70 percent of inmates released each year come right back to prison.

“It has been a revolving door of recidivism,” Ospino said.

In turn, Sentman told supervisors that the new partnerships established to deal with AB 109 is spurring unique cooperation among agencies. “We’ve shown some successes, a willingness to sit down and work together,” said Sentman, who was credited Tuesday with leading the effort effectively.

To date, the county probation department has produced a DVD to educate officers on the new characteristics of parolees. There has also been an overtime agreement with several police agencies, and probation officers are being located at local police agencies, he said.

There’s also an emphasis to use “evidence-based” practices to reduce recidivism rates. Health care workers are also doing evaluations on parolees to identify substance abuse and mental health issues as well as treatment options.

Yet county supervisors are nervous about the new parolee population.

Board Chairman John Moorlach was frustrated by the new policy and called on law enforcement groups to speak up in Sacramento.

“When does the police association cry out,” he asked, “or do we take the public defender approach that this is wonderful. … It’s counter intuitive to me.”

Please contact Norberto Santana Jr. directly at nsantana@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/norbertosanana.

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