Over the past eight months, the California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation has been monitoring news stories and reports from police agencies about the impact that AB109, Governor Brown's Public Safety Realignment law, is having on crime rates and local jails. The law, which took effect in October 2011, shifted responsibility for thousands of criminals (that the state characterized as low-risk) from the state to counties. These criminals, many with multiple felony convictions, are no longer eligible for prison or supervision on state parole when released from prison, until they commit a violent or serious crime such as rape, armed robbery, aggravated assault, or residential burglary. Under Realignment, criminals who violate the conditions of their parole, or are convicted of theft-related crimes and felonies such as spousal abuse, assault, and some drug offenses, can only be sentenced to county jail, probation, or treatment programs. As a result, local jails are overcrowded, sentences are often very short and thousands of criminals are cycling through the courts and back into communities with little or no supervision.
A report released in September by the Public Policy Institute of California indicates that convicts who would have gone to prison before AB109 are either being incarcerated a shorter amount of time or serving no time at all. (VV Daily Press, October 6).
Most county jails in California, including Los Angeles, San Diego, and Orange, were at capacity before Realignment, with 17 under court-ordered population restrictions. (KPCC News, September 27).
The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department received about 8,500 inmates since Realignment began, with 2,800 released within the first year. Five hundred new inmates are being transferred into its jail each month. Los Angeles County Assistant Sheriff Cecil Rhambo said, "We're incrementally growing monthly . . . . Quite frankly, I'm going to be running out of jail space." (Pasadena Star News, October 4).
Because of overcrowding, jails are being forced to release various types of inmates, who are awaiting trial, based on a threat index that considers a criminal's most recent offense. A Roseville police spokesperson said that these so-called nonviolent offenders are still dangerous. Local jails are housing hardened criminals, who used to be sent to prison, and this has changed the environment in many jails. California Police Chiefs Association President Scott Seaman reported that police chiefs all over California are concerned about the impact of AB109. Both the state Police Chiefs Association and the California District Attorneys Association oppose Realignment. (Gold Country News, October 12).
The Fresno jail has increased its capacity nearly 50% (to 2,859) since the implementation of Realignment. In an attempt to lessen the number of early releases in Fresno county due to jail overcrowding, another level of the jail was opened with more than 400 new beds in September. These additional beds filled up in 10 days; the jail was back at full capacity and early releases resumed. Even that was not enough. As many as 91 inmates are released early each day according to jail records. (Fresno Bee, September 28).
San Bernardino County Undersheriff Robert Fonzi says two recent jail breaks from a San Bernardino County facility were a direct result of the overcrowding caused by Realignment. Fonzi said, "Right now we have in our jails a person who is serving out an 18-year-sentence . . . . That's not how AB 109 was presented to us. Our jails aren't set up to meet the needs of people incarcerated for those kinds of periods of time. One we can deal with but when we get to five, 10, 100, we're really going to have issues." (Contra Costa Times, September 30).
In Stanislaus County, about 1,200 inmates are currently in county jails. The jails were above capacity before Realignment went into effect. According to Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson, the high number of inmates into the jails in the past year has forced the release of hundreds, which Sheriff Christianson calls, "the best of the worst." (SF Gate, September 30.)
The San Diego Sheriff's Department says jails are on average between 96 to 99% of capacity with about 5,500 inmates. Early in 2012, the jail population in the county rose over 90%, and San Diego Sheriff Bill Gore decided he had to shave time from sentences in order to accommodate inmates under AB109. (North County Times, October 1).
The Ventura County jail currently houses 1,600 inmates, about 250 more than when Realignment began, forcing inmates to bunk in common areas due to a lack of cells to house them. Ventura County Assistant Sheriff Gary Pentis said the realigned prisoners make housing inmates complicated as many are gang affiliated and must be housed separately from one another. Pentis told the County Board of Supervisors that the rate of inmate assaults have doubled with the increased jail population. (Ventura County Star, October 9).
Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said the North County Jail is operating at 130% capacity as of the beginning of October. The jail on average houses 1,023 inmates despite it's 788 capacity. (KEYT News, October 2).
According to the Kern County Sheriff's Department, drug use in the county's jails is up 75%, and fights are up 40%. The jail administration attributes the change to the demographics of realigned inmates from prisons who are more criminally sophisticated. "Because they're here longer, they are able to exploit any security gaps they can find," said Chief Deputy Kevin Zimmerman, who oversees all the jails for the Kern County Sheriff's Department. Due to the 2,000 inmates transferred into county jails under AB109, 86% of inmates in Kern County jails are felons and 55 percent are gang members. Some of the gang members are purposely getting arrested to smuggle drugs into the jail, knowing they will be released quickly due to overcrowding. Zimmerman says, "Their level of sophistication has affected our security measures on every level at every jail." (KGET News, September 20).
Siskiyou County Jail Commander, Lt. Jeff Huston says, "We are full all the time and alternative sentencing is full . . . . Misdemeanors typically don't do jail time because of lack of space . . . . There are people that break the law who need to be in jail . . . . We have an offender who has been arrested eight times for trespassing and we can't keep him in jail. He is a menace and we can't lock him up." (Mt. Shasta News, October 10).
The Merced Sun-Star reported a Merced County Sheriff's Department announcement that the county's jails will no longer book some parole violators due to overcrowding because of AB109, Governor Brown's Realignment law. According to a sheriff's spokesperson, only parolees who get new criminal charges, active warrants, serious parole violations, and sex offenders will serve time in the jails. All other parole violators will remain at home or on the streets. Though the implementation will be case-by-case, many local law enforcement leaders are very concerned. Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said, "We cannot just accept a violation of parole when we have absolutely no room." (Merced Sun-Star, October 17). Pazin reiterated that the decision to stop accepting violators had "nothing to do with local law enforcement," but with overcrowding due to AB109. (The Modesto Bee, October 18).
Lt. Bimley West of the Merced Police Department said the policy allows Realignment parolees to "commit another crime, victimize someone else, before they get booked at the jail." (CBS 47 TV, October 18).
Gabriel Fuentes was released from Merced County Jail after serving only 23 days of his sentence due to overcrowding. Fuentes had originally been convicted of lewd and lascivious acts with a child under 14 and was sentenced to 3 years in prison in Merced County in 1992. Fuentes has been in and out of jail since his original release for violating his parole. Fuentes was paroled on a narcotics and weapon charge in August 2010. On August 2, 2012, he violated his parole and received a 100-day jail sentence, which prior to Realignment could have resulted in his return to prison. After 23 days in custody, Fuentes was released and attacked a woman. The victim saw Fuentes in the parking lot of a psychiatric center undressing himself. The victim tried to run but Fuentes caught up to her and threw her to the ground. He grabbed her hair and slammed her head on the pavement, then attempted to sexually assault her until an employee of the center came to a door nearby and frightened Fuentes off. Police were called to the scene and arrested Fuentes when he returned to the center naked and knocked on a side door. (Merced Sun-Star, September 5).
Stewart Gardner, Deputy Commissioner with the California Board of Parole, who had sentenced Fuentes to his most recent 100 days in jail, says he was not surprised to hear an inmate was rearrested after serving a short time in jail. Gardner stated, "It's happening all up and down the state." (Merced Sun-Star, September 5).
"With Halloween approaching, the monsters Californians should fear most are the habitual criminals roaming the streets looking for new victims because of Realignment," said Foundation President Michael Rushford.