Riverside County Sheriff Stan Sniff. Photo by J.P. Crumrine

Riverside County Sheriff Stan Sniff visited Idyllwild last week and talked about how he and the Board of Supervisors are responding to the raft of public safety issues. The ramifications of reducing state prison populations has the broadest impact and has created a high-priority issue for most California county sheriff offices as well as implementing the state’s realignment legislation — Assembly Bill 109.

Adequate staffing to respond to local crime and managing a burgeoning jail population is now a constant concern for Sniff.

Thursday, only a day before a three-judge federal panel ordered Gov. Jerry Brown to release sufficient prisoners (estimated to be more than 10,000) to limit the state prison population to 137.5 percent of the design capacity by Dec. 31, 2013, Sniff forewarned this possibility and the difficulty it will impose on Brown and, potentially, the counties.

While Brown announced he will appeal the order, Sniff expects the state to shift some prison population to facilities outside California.

The problems reducing the state prison population are exacerbated in Riverside County. While the County’s population has grown substantially in the last decade, the number of county jail beds has not kept pace. Sniff stressed, “Jail capacity is our number-one priority.”

The state awarded a $100-million grant to Riverside County to expand the Indio jail, but that will add only a few hundred beds. The county needs thousands more beds, according to Sniff.

The entire issue is complicated by a myriad of unintended consequences, which offer minimal flexibility. For example, jails and prisons are designed for different prisoner populations. Most of a jail’s inmates are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of any current crime. Prisons are for inmates serving multi-year sentences. They have more room and services, which jails do not provide for their essentially transient populations, Sniff explained.

Normally, Riverside County books more than 60,000 individuals annually. Now, more than 20 percent of its prisoners are serving sentences of more than three years.

So the sheriff had to release nearly 7,000 prisoners early last year and he predicted the early releases would exceed 9,000 inmates this year. “We’re hemorrhaging early releases,” he said.

In Sniff’s opinion, the early-release program, including the federal panel’s recent order, is creating a false economy. “These efforts should have been tested in stages and then in a few counties before statewide implementation,” Sniff declared. “They have not been thought through and many unintended consequences are now occurring.”

Nevertheless, with patience, he is optimistic the county will eventually build a new 4,000-bed facility. That project was mothballed a year ago planning for the “mid-county jail” facility. But that site or another location is still part of the county’s budget deliberations.

New jail capacity costs more than construction. Long-term operational costs are in the millions and continue as long as the facility harbors inmates.

But Sniff is positive about the Board of Supervisors’ decision to hire more deputies, to restore the former ratio of 1 deputy per 1,000 residents. Last year, as crime statistics began growing, the ratio had dropped to .75 deputies per 1,000.

“Almost every community is feeling this now,” he noted. “The metrics are growing nationwide, driven by the West and California.”

Hiring deputy sheriffs, even during a recession, is not easy. “We had more than 31,000 applicants, reviewed and investigated them to find 100 eligible to begin training,” Sniff stated. “Of those, about 50 percent graduate. The investment to put a deputy in a patrol car is about five years and $750,000.”

The sheriff’s office has already graduated two classes of deputies and two more are scheduled this summer. By spring 2014, Sniff expects to return to the 1.0 ratio in the unincorporated areas of Riverside County.