By J.P. Crumrine, Editor
and Marshall Smith, Staff Reporter

As of Oct. 1, Riverside County and the other 57 California counties are now responsible for housing more convicts and parole violators, as well as monitoring the release of many more state prisoners.

Legislation passed in April transfers responsibility for supervising specified lower-level inmates and parolees from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to counties. Nonviolent, nonserious, non-sex offenders will now serve prison sentences locally in county jails.

Shifting these responsibilities from the state to counties is intended to help with two major state problems: the overall state prison population and the state budget. California is under a federal order from a March 2011 Supreme Court decision to reduce its current prison population by 33,000 inmates over the next two years.

Gov. Jerry Brown has promised that funding will accompany the shift of responsibilities, but local officials are still uncomfortable and unsatisfied.

“The county could provide better service locally than the state centrally,” Verne Lauritzen, chief of staff for 3rd District Supervisor Jeff Stone. “But the state needs to allocate the funding. Our already stressed resources are stretched. Without the [adequate] state funds, I don’t know how we’ll provide the service.”

For the nine months remaining in this fiscal year, the state will transfer about $23.5 million to Riverside County to accompany the transfer of responsibilities. The local county planning committee has not decided how to allocate all the funding. However, $1.5 million was designated for training and $755,000 was specifically targeted for the District Attorney and Public Defender’s new caseloads.

Post-release supervision of the target population will fall mainly on local probation departments. Riverside County’s Probation Department estimates it will need more than 100 more staff and a budget increase approaching $9.5 million.

They estimated that about 1,688 offenders would be released to Riverside County probation between Oct. 1 and June 30, 2012.

The incarceration of nonviolent, non-sex, and nonserious offenders in county jails rather than in state prisons will generate a burden on the already crowded local jail system. The adequacy of that system was earlier exacerbated in May when the Board of Supervisors voted to remove funding for adding beds to a regional detention center as the top priority on the county’s capital investment list.

The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department (RSD) has estimated that the current jail bed capacity of 3,904 will more than double to accommodate an additional 5,740 inmates during the next two years. Nearly 60 percent of the additional inmates will be parole violators and another 2,250 will be prisoners who formerly would have been transferred to the state prison system. Chief Correctional Deputy Jerry Gutierrez estimated that the jail system would reach capacity in January 2012 and then require about 160 new beds per month after that.

In order to absorb the inmate growth, the Sheriff’s Department has two primary options. Both require more money. First, the RSD can increase its reliance on sentencing and incarceration alternatives, such as involuntary home detention and electronic monitoring for the pretrial population. The other alternative is to contract with other agencies for additional bed space. RSD conducted a review of costs of contracting with public or privately operated correctional facilities but notes in its report that the only viable long-term, cost-effective solution for Riverside County is the expansion of department jail bed space and capacity. A third, and least desirable temporary option, according to Gutierrez, is federally mandated early release of inmates in what the department calls “Fed kicks.” Gutierrez said that option would only be pursued if the others failed.

Gutierrez cited a RSD September 2011 report that details the lack of bed availability in other Southern California Sheriff’s Department facilities “There are no available beds in the other counties surveyed,” wrote the authors. Other problems with contracting out inmate incarceration include the cost complications of placing inmates in facilities such as CAL FIRE’s housing for inmate firefighters, the insurance difficulties of using private correctional facilities, and the time limitations associated with use of municipality public jails, such as Palm Springs or Corona.

The shift in incarceration and probation responsibilities will affect other county departments, too. The District Attorney, Public Defender’s Office and the Department of Mental Health will see future workloads and associated costs expand.

For example, the Public Defender’s Office will now have responsibility to represent individuals in parole hearings, formerly a state function. Even the Riverside County Superior Court will see changes related to the realignment of criminal justice in the state.

Gutierrez cited the overall cost to the county of the various options for dealing with inmate growth and influx as the result of realignment compared to the money the state is providing. “There is simply not enough,” he said.