O.C. officials wary of state prisoner release

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Article Date: 1/27/2010 | Resource: MLG

O.C. officials wary of state prisoner release

State officials this week began releasing the first of 6,500 inmates from state prisons — a move designed to save the state money.
Orange County law enforcement officials said the move is merely shifting the burden to local governments.

The move will allow low-risk offenders and those convicted of nonviolent crimes to earn credits in prison to reduce their time served – up to six weeks for each year served. Credits earned by prisoners for such things as fighting forest fires and completing drug and alcohol programs.

When released, they would no longer be required to undergo regular supervision by a parole agent or be returned to prison for technical violations, such as alcohol use or a missed drug test. Those inmates that meet the requirements could still be searched by authorities without a warrant.

Speaking with reporters, state prisons chief Matthew Cate called the move a “landmark day in California corrections.”

Local law enforcement officials in Orange County were less enthused.

“I think it’s appalling,” said Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, who characterized the state’s move as an effort to shift its budgetary problems to the county governments, not as correctional reform. “Why are they pushing it on the locals?”

At this point, local officials don’t know how many prisoners — or which ones — will be released.

Parole officers would face a lower workload and be able focus their energies on more serious offenders, Cate said. A parole officers’ regular work load of 70 cases is expected to be reduced to 48 because those soon to be released will not be supervised, Cate said. More parole agents will be hired, Cate said

The move, Cate said, would result in a savings of a half billion dollars to the state. “The state is out of money,” he added.

But Hutchens said local authorities would face the burden of an increased number of convicted felons in their jurisdictions and a possible increase in crime.

Santa Ana has seen crime decrease over the last four years and police there are waiting to see how the release will impact the city, said Chief Paul Walters. The major concern, he said, is that in a struggling economy, released prisoners might resort to old habits.

“The concern is they’re likely to go back to things they did before,” Walters said. “What will these people do? What can we expect to happen?”

In Santa Ana, there are currently 2,414 parolees.

“It’s too early to tell,” he said.

Although there are some aspects of the program that are appealing, Walters said. For example, the program will place 1,000 parolee gang members on GPS supervision, and add 2,000 electronic devices for parole violators as an alternative to incarceration.

But the sheriff’s department, which oversees county jails, is suffering from its own budget problems.

This year the sheriff’s department faces $42 million in budget cuts. In the 2010-2011 budget, the department stands to loose another $65 million.

The county plans to downsize jails, but that only works with a dwindling inmate population. An early release of state prisoners, Hutchens said, could affect the county’s ability to save money.

“It will definitely have an impact on crime rates,” she said.

According to the Orange County Probation Department, there are more than 16,000 adults in probation in a year.

Local law enforcement is also keeping an eye on the Supreme Court, where a decision is due on whether to release 40,000 California inmates to relieve overcrowding.

The sheriff’s department estimates there are currently about 9,000 Orange County residents in state prison. Roughly 15 to 18 percent of state prisoners could compete for release, Cate said.

Serious offenders — such as those serving time for violent or sex crimes would not be eligible, Cate said. Those most likely to commit another crime or those with gang affiliations not be eligible for release.

Hutchens questioned how the state will categorize gang members.

Whether it means those identified by law enforcement as having gang ties, or those convicted of committing a crime for the benefit of a gang is unknown, she said.

And when inmates are taken to state prison, many of them will have established ties with criminal gangs inside the prison.

“They are coming from state prison and you’re in state prison for a reason,” Hutchens said.

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Jeffrey Marquart