Can county handle more inmates in local jails?


With a $25 billion hole to fill in the state budget that takes effect July 1, a proposition by Gov. Jerry Brown would shift to counties, including San Mateo County, responsibility for some state functions, including elements of criminal justice, mental health and child welfare services.

This "realignment" would include a gradual transfer of oversight from the state to the counties of parolees and prisoners convicted of "non-violent, non-serious and non-sex-related" crimes.

The county Board of Supervisors discussed realignment on Tuesday, March 1, in their boardroom in Redwood City. Joining the discussion were the three state Assembly members whose districts include the county: Jerry Hill and Rich Gordon participated by phone; Fiona Ma attended in person.

To make room in the jail for some 400 more inmates annually, the county would have to find alternatives for people in custody for less serious offenses, Sheriff Greg Munks told the board. Other county officials testified as to the spillover effects of this shift on health, welfare and parole services.

The incoming prisoners will be serving three-to-five-year sentences and would have been returning to San Mateo County anyway, Sheriff Munks noted. With realignment, they'll be coming back sooner but will complete their sentences, he added in an interview.

"There's a lot of people in prison who need to be in prison. That aspect is working (but) I think the governor's idea is a good one," Mr. Munks told the Almanac. Programs to lower recidivism rates are not working, he said, and local agencies, which are closer to communities in which ex-convicts attempt to rebuild their lives, may be better suited to help them.

"We know the (nonprofit) local service providers," Mr. Munks said. "We are connected with the community. We're able to do more." The re-incarceration cycle is also expensive and ending it is thus critical to more efficient operation of local and state governments, he said.

The county jail, officially rated for 834 inmates, currently houses 1,000, Mr. Munks said. Plans for a new jail in Redwood City are well along and will eventually boost capacity to 1,456.

Sixty percent of current inmates are awaiting trial, and a good percentage of them are headed to prison, he said. The other 40 percent are serving less than a year. The average stay is 27 days, a low number due in part to thousands of arrestees who are simply booked and released.

Inmates who would otherwise be in prison "will be a new normal," Mr. Munks said. "We're not used to having people in there for two or three years. It could change how we build jails and operate them."

Alternatives for the lesser offenders who will be squeezed out include the Sheriff's Work Program, which has inmates working along roads and in parks, and the Work-Furlough Program, in which inmates spend nights in jail but days otherwise employed.

Realignment thus presents a great opportunity to address re-entry and rehabilitation issues with such cost-effective programs, Mr. Munks said. "It's kind of the centerpiece of what we want to build."

The crux of the matter: "How do we do this so we don't crash one system in favor of another?"

Higher case loads

County resources are limited. The probation department, for example, had to lay off 30 percent of its staff, Chief Probation Officer Stuart J. Forrest told the board. The higher case loads predicted after realignment would "build a structure on very weak legs," he said.

The early prison transfers may, "because they represent the greatest cost to the state," include prisoners with "severe" substance abuse and mental health problems and less predictable behavior, Mr. Forrest said in an e-mail.

Helping these people will require "a consistent, multi-disciplinary approach containing elements of cognitive skills, training, targeted treatment, vocational training and education," he said. "Realignment may present an opportunity to expand the capacity of such programs."

The county health establishment, while quite critical of proposed cuts in allowed Medi-Cal visits and skilled nursing assets, agrees. "Overall, we're quite optimistic about realignment to have closer connection of services to clients," said Srija Srinivasan, an assistant to the county manager for public health issues.

The long recession has "greatly increased" demands for county assistance, which already serves 84,000 children, youth and adults, said Beverly Beasley Johnson, director of the county's Human Services Agency.

Medi-Cal in San Mateo County now serves 64,000 children and adults, up from 55,000 in 2009, she said, noting that determining eligibility now takes up to five months. "The system of safety net service will be critical to the success of realignment," she said.

"Our safety net is going to be pretty frayed," said Supervisor Don Horsley, whose district includes Atherton, Woodside, Menlo Park and Portola Valley. "We may well have to revisit some issue of tax" to retain "outstanding" and "robust" public services, he said.

Assemblyman Gordon, asked to comment on the discussion, said, "I have great confidence in the ability of local governments to effectively and efficiently implement these services after realignment."

San Mateo County is noted for demographic concentrations at either end of the age spectrum, and for cooperation between the public and nonprofit sectors. "One defines a need and the other defines how it can be met," he said.

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