OC Sheriff Argues for Alternative to Jailing Low-Level Offenders

Orange County’s Republican sheriff is making the case for an approach to jailing that would have been largely unheard of in the “tough on crime” days of the 1980s and 90s.

Sheriff Sandra Hutchens says home detention, in which certain people sentenced for non-violent crimes are confined at home under GPS tracking instead jail time, has been shown in studies to reduce the chances that low-level offenders will commit more crimes.

“If they are allowed to remain out of jail after they’ve been vetted [using] evidence-based practices…a lot of them still have a job, so they’re still out in the community working.  They’re less likely to re-offend,” Hutchens told county supervisors on Tuesday, as she sought a one-year extension of the home detention program.

Faced with budget shortfalls, Hutchens said, the home detention program is key to not falling deeper into a financial hole.

Home detention costs $4.75 per person per day, as opposed to $140 per day for jailing, according to Supervisor Lisa Bartlett.

Others, however, see the approach as being too soft on criminals.

“I think when somebody’s arrested for, you know, a misdemeanor crime, even though it’s a misdemeanor, we’re starting to get soft on that as a society, where people go, ‘Oh, it’s just a misdemeanor,’” said Supervisor Todd Spitzer during Tuesday’s discussion.

“I’m saying, hey man, when somebody commits a crime – misdemeanor or felony – there’s an expectation, if a judge gives them a sentence, they’re going to do their time.”

Spitzer sought a commitment from the sheriff that if there are empty beds at county jails, they’ll be filled before allowing more home detention.

“I just want to know, if we have a bed are you going to use it? Or are you going to use some of these other ancillary rationales that have now come forward to reduce recidivism?” Spitzer asked.

Hutchens wouldn’t make that commitment, saying her staff is using some the empty beds to allow maintenance work and close parts of jails to reduce overtime.

Spitzer responded by saying that jailing as many sentenced people as possible is the right approach, even if it costs more.

“I don’t mind paying if it means that people are going to be incarcerated if they’re sentenced by a judge. That’s a philosophy,” said Spitzer.

“Well, and I have a – if you check with [the county] CEO – I have a budget shortfall I’m looking at,” Hutchens replied.  “So I’m trying to be cognizant of that as well.”

The issue is slated for more discussion by county supervisors at a March 31 workshop, Spitzer said.

After the discussion, county supervisors approved what Hutchens was seeking: a one-year, $520,000 extension of an electronic monitoring contract with Satellite Tracking of People, LLC.  Spitzer was the only supervisor to oppose it.

The debate reflects a broader national discussion about whether to scale back incarceration for lower-level crimes.

During the 1980s and 90s, a wave of laws were passed across the U.S. that lengthened sentences for violent crimes as well as many non-violent crimes, such as drug possession.

Those policies, in turn, contributed to a more than 600-percent increase in California’s prison population between 1980 and 2000.

With the prison system experiencing intense overcrowding, in 2011 the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to cut its prison population significantly.

To comply, Gov. Jerry Brown spearheaded a state law, known as AB 109 and prisoner realignment, that transfers much of the state’s responsibility for new non-violent inmates to county jails.

That, in turn, has swelled the local jail population, while the state has sought to incentivize counties to use less expensive alternatives to incarceration like home detention.

In Orange County’s case, its electronic monitoring contractor, which was first hired in 2013, tracks a maximum of 300 inmates per year.

A thorough screening process takes place to decide who can serve their sentence through home detention, sheriff’s officials say.

“We very carefully vet who we actually put out on electronic monitoring,” said Hutchens, adding that the program has a 0.003-percent non-compliance rate.

Those who do escape have been easily found, she added.

“We haven’t had any trouble in the time that we’ve done it,” said Hutchens.

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