When California voters in 2014 approved Proposition 47, which reduced prison sentences for thousands of nonviolent drug offenders, state savings from the law were to fund programs to keep these people off drugs and out of jail.
The state is now following through with a pool that will start at $19 million and grow in 2018 to $37.4 million — with the money for the programs parceled out through competitive grants.
With this in mind, officials from jurisdictions up and down the state have jockeyed for position on a novel executive steering committee set up by California Board of State Community Corrections [BSCC] in Sacramento to establish program guidelines for the first competition starting in August.
But missing from this group is anyone from Orange County. And interviews with a number of people with knowledge of the process indicate that county officials are doing very little to ensure that any of this money flows here.
“If a county is not now developing a comprehensive strategy for its proposed system, it will be in a very weak competitive position,” said Marisa Arrona, a director for the Californians for Safety and Justice, the Prop. 47 primary proponent in Oakland.
That seems to be the position Orange County is in.
There is no one from the county on the 13-person governing board of the BSCC. And last autumn the Orange County Sheriff’s Department was the lowest rated competitor among counties seeking BSCC funds for jail rebuilding.
Likewise, there is no one from Orange County among the 21 proposed members of steering committee that the BSCC is appointing at its meeting today in Sacramento. However, there are representatives from the other Southern California counties, with Kern having two members, including a co-chair. However, at least two Orange County individuals unsuccessfully applied, records show.
And interviews with numerous local and state officials couldn’t turn up anyone from Orange County who attended the BSCC town halls in January in Los Angeles, Highland and San Diego.
At those hearings, where BSCC board members and staff took public comments on the new networks, attendees said the message was clear: Let’s try something new, not just give the money to government agencies.
“One of the big themes at the town hall” was for community groups to have a major role in services, said Frank L. Birchak, a San Diego deputy public defender.
The Orange County Public Defender’s Office wasn’t in attendance at a town hall, officials said.
Public defender offices statewide are particularly important because they represent the bulk of the inmates affected by Prop. 47. The public defenders help the offenders get their prison/jail sentences shortened or eliminated, felonies reduced to misdemeanors, and then misdemeanors expunged to improve hiring opportunities.
While authorities estimate that about one million people statewide are eligible to utilize Prop. 47, counties have struggled to identify individuals — particularly in Orange County.
Those eligible for release have been freed in most counties, but there are many more on the streets who could have their criminal records cleaned up.
Sharon Petrosino — who was the deputy overseeing Prop. 47 cases before assuming the interim job as Orange County’s Public Defender last December — said her agency was hamstrung by its antiquated computer system.
“We didn’t have any idea who was eligible for Prop. 47 because our system was so poor,” she added. “We muddled through,” with the assistance of “an army of law clerks.”
Petrosino agreed that a good system to monitor individuals will be vital for any Orange County proposal.
In February, the county Board of Supervisors approved a more than year-old proposal for a new case management computer system for pubic defender cases, although it won’t be operational until later this year, Petrosino said.
In the coming competition, the BSCC will accept applicants from county geographical regions. But the lead agency through which the money will flow must be a government entity (a county, a city or a public agency) which then would create networks with service providers.
Under the current schedule, the BSCC will issue a request for proposals in August, applicants would have a couple months to respond, then money would disbursed to winning systems next spring after they were rated and ranked.
Again, no one in Orange County governmental agencies could be located who are planning for an application — as others are in Southern California.
‘Not Aware of Any Plans’
Sue DeLacy — an Orange County Probation Department division director who unsuccessfully applied for the steering committee — wrote in an email that she was “not aware of any plans” regarding the coming competition, but she hopes to be involved.
There is an advisory group called the Orange County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which typically meets monthly and was designed to address such region-wide issues. Members include the sheriff, probation department, public defender, health officials, police, and judges.
The minutes of its Feb. 19 meeting stated the BSCC held the town hall meetings, but there is no reflection of any associated action by local officials.
That council is chaired by Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who wasn’t available for an interview nor did he respond to email questions about Prop. 47.
County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas also is a member, but, according to meeting minutes, neither he nor a representative have attended for more than six months. This isn’t unexpected as Spitzer and Rackauckas are bitter rivals, with the supervisor widely expected to challenge the DA in the next election.
Among community-based agencies in Orange County that may partner for services there is concern the region will miss an enormous opportunity.
“Orange County just doesn’t have a strategic plan to deal with these issues and provide resources,” said an organization leader, who insisted on anonymity out of fear of retaliation.
A county spokeswoman suggested it might too early for planning for the competition, as the request for proposals with specifics — like are matching funds required — hasn’t been released.
Already from San Diego to San Bernardino, advocates and agency officials in other counties are collecting data, holding meetings, or discussing a framework for applications.
In San Diego, there are Prop. 47 discussions at the Reentry Roundtable, an organization of community groups and government agencies that meets regularly.
“There has been a conscious effort to keep the community informed and educated about the coming program,” said Keiara Auzenne, an attorney and roundtable member. And a San Diego County administrator is on the steering committee, for instance.
In particular, interviews show that both San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos are constructive partners with the other agencies to apply Prop. 47.
Regarding what he called “a very productive” relationship with Dumanis, Birchak of San Diego’s public defender office said, “It is hard to emphasis how important that is.”
This is in stark contrast to Orange County, where officials say Rackauckas and his executive staff don’t share anything about Prop. 47 with the public defender’s office.
The blackout between the agencies likely is affected by the informant scandal that has sullied the district attorney nationally. An assistant public defender, Scott Sanders, successfully last year won the unprecedented recusal of the DA’s office from continuing to prosecute mass murder Scott Evans Dekraai because of constitutional rights violations.
In San Bernardino, the message is officials must be active in state efforts to take advantage of programs like the coming one from Prop. 47.
Michelle Scray Brown — San Bernardino’s chief probation officer, who also is on the BSCC board — said: “We are encourage to be involved on a state level.”
And agencies from public health to law enforcement all work together on such projects.
“There is no tolerance for not collaborating,” she said.
Rex Dalton is a San Diego-based journalist and frequent Voice of OC contributor. You can reach him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.