Fresno County’s jail has whole floors of empty cells.
When AB 109 takes effect, moving tens of thousands of inmates from state prisons to local facilities, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said her office has plenty of bed space to accommodate.
But Mims and California’s other sheriffs do not have cash to feed and secure a huge population of convicted felons.
And the legislation, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed Monday, does not direct dollars toward the prison realignment.
“My biggest concern is the state needs to save money so bad that it might negatively impact the counties,” Mims said.
The governor pledged AB 109 wouldn’t take effect until state officials secure funding for county jails. “Regrettably, the measure that would provide stable and constitutionally protected funding for public safety has not yet passed the Legislature,” Brown wrote in his signing statement [PDF].
The law will ultimately shift inmates convicted of offenses deemed nonserious, nonviolent and non-sexual (the “triple-nons” for short) to county jails. Keeping that population out of state prisons would save California’s general fund an estimated $458 million, according to the governor’s office, and significantly ease overcrowding at the state corrections facilities.
Matt Cate, head of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, told the Los Angeles Times that the prison system last year received 47,000 inmates for parole violations, sentenced to no more than 90 days. Those inmates receive expensive physical and mental screenings that county jails are not required to perform.
Several sheriffs have come out in support of moving low-level offenders closer to home.
Local law enforcement officials are also skeptical of the state’s financial intentions.
“Eventually, I think these inmates, these triple-nons, are going to be viewed as county inmates rather than state inmates,” said Deputy Chief Lance Clark, who oversees corrections for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office. “And I think the funding will go away at some point.”
The realignment remains a tangle of undetermined details.
When lawmakers do allocate money, how much? And will it cover the full expense of housing the inmates? How many of these inmates are actually going to be housed in county lockups?
Brown had proposed paying the county jail costs with money from renewed tax and fee increases, but those have not been renewed. Among them is the vehicle license fee hike, which expires at the end of June and has provided city and county police agencies many millions of dollars in recent years.
The license fees pay for 200 positions at Fresno County’s sheriff and probation offices, Mims said. Since becoming sheriff in 2007, budget cuts eliminated 25 percent of her staff.
The reductions hit hard the ranks of correctional officers, and Mims instituted an early release program for non-violent crime suspects. The population at the Fresno County jail has dropped by 35 percent, or more than 1,000 people, during the past two years.
She had hoped that funding from the prison realignment might allow her to again fill jailhouse guard positions and reopen her entire corrections facility.
Few of California’s county jails have the luxury of unused space.
Sheriffs’ offices have shrunk their jail populations, with a 10 percent drop [PDF] statewide from 2009 to 2010, corrections department data shows.
In San Bernardino County, Clark said he estimates the sheriff’s office might be responsible for an additional 8,000 to 12,000 felons over the next three years. The county is now adding 1,300 beds to its facilities, which still won’t create adequate space for the realignment.
Clark is working with the District Attorney’s Office to establish a plan to limit the number of non-serious convicts who receive jail sentences. This might be accomplished by increasing electronic monitoring and work furloughs.
“We can’t stick them (all) in cells,” Clark said. “We’re going to have to go to alternatives to custody.”