Merced County Sheriff's Department officials said Wednesday afternoon that the county's jails will no longer book some parole violators effective immediately, because of inmate overcrowding.
The move by Sheriff Mark Pazin -- which has been criticized by some top Merced area law enforcement officials -- is similar to what happened in Fresno County in November.
"We cannot just accept a violation of parole when we have absolutely no room," Pazin said Wednesday.
Deputy Tom MacKenzie, sheriff's spokesman, said the policy will be implemented on a case-by-case basis. Parolees who get new criminal charges, sex offenders and those with serious violations or an active warrant will still be accepted at the jail, he said.
The news regarding the parolees is the latest in the ongoing controversy surrounding Assembly Bill 109 -- the state's prison realignment law. AB 109 was signed into law in April 2011 to reduce the state's budget deficit and meet a U.S. Supreme Court order to remove about 33,000 inmates from the state's 33 overcrowded prisons by May 2013.
Those who violated their parole used to be sent to prison, but under AB 109, those inmates are now the responsibility of the counties' jails. And with no room in the Merced County Jail or the John Latorraca Correctional Center to hold them, many parole violators ultimately will remain at home or on the streets.
"We don't have the bed space to house them, because we have our own violent offenders to house," MacKenzie said.
Those who are in the jail for parole violations that occurred before the new policy will not be affected. "Obviously, we'll look at every situation on a case-by-case basis, and the determination will be made by the lieutenants in the correctional facilities," MacKenzie said.
The main jail and the John Latorraca Correctional Center have a combined population cap of 580 inmates, and Pazin said his department is under a federal mandate to meet that cap. MacKenzie said the population at the county jails Wednesday was more than 600.
Many local law enforcement leaders were extremely concerned with Pazin's decision, saying it will greatly affect their ability to arrest those who violate their parole.
Merced Police Chief Norman Andrade said that while he understands the dilemma Pazin's facing because of the jailhouse overcrowding, he personally received no advance notice of the news.
Andrade said his department received a fax from the Sheriff's Department on Tuesday night, and he was informed early Wednesday morning.
Andrade questioned why Pazin acted with urgency on the matter, without notifying him ahead of time. "I think he's making a huge mistake right now. You can't shoot from the hip and make decisions like this that affect all agencies in the county," Andrade said. "He had to know this ahead of time and I have a problem with that."
Atwater Interim City Manager and Police Chief Frank Pietro said he hadn't heard that the jail wasn't accepting parole violators until he was called by the Sun-Star on Wednesday afternoon. "This is totally new to me," Pietro said. "We do parole searches on a monthly basis ... (and the decision is) going to hinder us a bit from doing our jobs."
Livingston Police Chief Ruben Chavez also said he hadn't been informed of the sheriff's decision until receiving a call from the Sun-Star.
"My concern is if we have someone who violated his parole and is a threat to a community, we'd like to put him in a place where he can do no harm," Chavez said.
Still, Chavez said, he hopes to work together on the issue with the sheriff and other law enforcement managers, when they get together for their regular bi-monthly meeting.
Pazin did acknowledge Wednesday evening that he should have spoken to the area's police chiefs about the decision before moving forward, although he said all the agencies did receive notice from his staff.
"The directive to limiting the violating parolees got ahead of the notification my counterparts. That, I concede," he said.
Pazin said he notified state parole officials, saying that his department is working with them to examine the cases of the parole violators in their custody.
"If there's a serious violation of parole, a sex offender or someone who committed a serious crime, of course we are going to book them," Pazin said.
'There's just no room'
For minor parole violations, however, such as failed drug tests, Pazin said, "there's just no room -- that's just the bottom line."
Pazin, who was a supporter of AB 109, said the jail's current situation hasn't changed his mind about the state's realignment law.
The sheriff said "probably 80 percent" of those who are being held at the jail are awaiting trial. "This pre-dates the realignment that took place Oct. 1," Pazin said.
"Realignment's onset is still valid. But as in any legislation signed by the governor, there are hurdles we have to go through, and this is one of them," Pazin said. "Each sheriff in the state is facing the same problem."
City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.