State Prison Officials Challenge Hutchens on AB 109 Claims

Sandra Hutchens (p)

Nick Gerda/Voice of OC

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County and state officials continue to argue over whether Orange County is being underfunded for the additional housing, probation and medical costs for prisoners whose supervision is being shifted from the state to the local level.

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens drew a direct rebuke from state officials last week after she told supervisors during their weekly meeting that “statewide, 30,000 prisoners were transferred from state facilities to county jails.”

It’s a common description that many local politicians have used to describe the shift of prisoner responsibilities known by it’s authorizing legislation, AB 109.

But it’s also one that state officials are disputing.

Officials from the state Departments of Corrections & Rehabilitation took immediate issue with Hutchens’ description, saying the state’s prisoner reduction was being accomplished through attrition, not a transfer.

In an interview, Hutchens agreed that the prisoners were not directly transferred. “I didn’t mean that they came directly from a prison facility and were transferred that way,” Hutchens said.

“That was a common misperception that’s been out there since AB 109 came out,” she added. “No one was released from prison that wasn’t already up for parole already and no state prisoner was transferred to county jail as part of AB 109.”

The shift, also known as prisoner realignment, has been highly contentious from the start. It was prompted by a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that California’s prisons were so overcrowded they caused “needless suffering and death.” The court ordered the inmate population reduced by more than 30,000.

Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Legislature developed a plan to lower the number of prisoners by having new convictions for lower-level offenses — known as “non-non-nons” — be served at county jails rather than state prisons. The law also shifts responsibility for lower-risk parolees to county probation departments.

“Offenders who are newly convicted of a nonserious, nonviolent, nonsex offense after October 1, 2011, now stay in county jail to serve their term,” CDCR spokeswoman Dana Simas wrote in an email. “They no longer come to state prison.”

“It’s meant to take these lower-level offenders and give counties money to implement programs to help rehabilitate them,” said Simas, adding that housing an inmate costs around $40 to $50 per day at county jails versus about $140 in state prisons.

Orange County officials, meanwhile, also claim the state is shortchanging the Sheriff’s Department by about $10 million. On this issue, Hutchens is standing firm.

“We’re not getting the amount of money it’s costing us to incarcerate,” said Hutchens. Probation and health care departments likely have shortfalls as well she said.

Any shortfalls in jail costs are paid from the county’s general fund, Hutchens said, adding that she “would certainly like that [funding] number to get closer to what it’s costing.”

State officials, meanwhile, also stand by their funding allocations.

Orange County received $57.5 million this fiscal year and is set to receive nearly $68 million next fiscal year, Simas said.

“That funding is ongoing, permanent, constitutionally-guaranteed,” said Simas. “Certainly counties have been receiving quite a bit of money.”

Beyond the funding dispute, Hutchens said, the influx of parole violators also presents its own challenges, including how certain gang members must be kept alone in a four-person cell.

“That keeps you from being able to fill every bed that we have,” Hutchens said.

Yet despite the acrimony, both county and state officials agree about the importance of rehabilitation programs to help prevent released inmates from re-offending.

“I’m looking for enough monies to come up with our own programming, because the whole argument was that locally we can do it a lot better,” said Hutchens. “The offender is closer to their county, closer to their community.”

Orange County’s current programs include sober living homes, faith-based volunteers and domestic violence programs, Hutchens said.

“Prior to release, we connect them with these non-profit groups,” said Hutchens.

While Hutchens said she’s not really looking for state support with programs, the state indicated it’s ready to help should Orange County seek guidance.

“Certainly if they have any concerns and have any questions, we are more than available,” said Simas. Her agency has an entire division for rehabilitation programs, she said.

She emphasized the importance of making sure released inmates have housing, get help finding a job and are put back in touch with their family.

“It’s an incredible transition to see an inmate go from incarceration to freedom,” Simas said, “but we have to make sure they have the proper tools to be successful.”

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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