Overall crime in the county's unincorporated areas went down more than 5 percent in 2012, according to data released by the Merced County Sheriff's Department this month.
That decline is in stark contrast to the city of Merced's increase.
The data looks at Part 1 crimes, which includes murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, theft, auto theft and arson.
The Sheriff's Department reported 3,221 of these crimes in 2012, compared with 3,397 in 2011, a 5.1 percent decrease. Crime in the unincorporated areas was up about 10 percent in 2011, compared with 2010.
Overall, violent crimes went up about 3.9 percent in the Sheriff's Department's jurisdiction in 2012, with 1,110 crimes reported, compared with 1,068 in 2011. Property crimes went down about 8.9 percent, with 2,121 incidents reported last year, compared with 2,329 in 2011.
Sheriff Mark Pazin attributed the overall decrease in crime to the hard work of those in his department. "Our deputies are doing a fantastic job," he said.
Pazin said the numbers are evidence that Assembly Bill 109, the state's prison realignment law, is not causing an increase in crime, contrary to the claims by some in law enforcement.
Pazin, a supporter of AB 109, referenced a recent report by the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice.
The report, which analyzed recent FBI statistics, said that although violent and property crimes have gone up in 40 of 69 of California's largest cities in the first half of 2012, there is no correlation between those increases and AB 109.
The report said that counties with the largest proportions of offenders and parolees affected by AB 109 showed smaller increases in violent and property crime than counties with smaller populations of such offenders.
"Our statistical information basically reflects that report," Pazin said. "That report is basically a mirror image of what our office has done and some of the smaller agencies."
Not everyone in local law enforcement shares Pazin's view of AB 109.
Last month, the city of Merced, the county's largest urban area, reported a 25 percent increase in overall crime, the most dramatic rise in crime the city has seen in more than 10 years.
Merced Police Chief Norm Andrade said the downturn in the economy and fewer police officers have been contributors to the crime increase his department has seen, but he also believes the "trickle down" effect of AB 109 has had a negative impact as well.
Under AB 109, thousands of inmates who normally would have gone to state prison are doing their time in local jurisdictions.
Andrade maintains that because there's less space in the Merced County jail system, offenders who commit lower-level offenses are spending less time behind bars and sometimes are being turned away.
The police chief said that although AB 109 isn't the "total reason" for the city of Merced's increase in crime, it's definitely a contributor.
"Because they are not locking up the people that we once did, they are not keeping them in jail because of AB 109," Andrade said. "When you are not keeping people in jail, that has some effect."
Pazin, on the other hand, said his department has been meticulous about which lower-level inmates are released under AB 109, adding the issue isn't restricted to Merced County.
"There's 57 other counties that are doing the same thing. We are working feverishly to keep the worst of the worst behind bars. But until we get a larger facility, this is the new norm."
"Gov. Brown is committed to realignment, and whether we like it or not, it's here to stay," the sheriff said. "We have to make it work."
Pazin said his department works closely with the Probation Department, and has formed an AB 109 team. It includes four deputies who scrutinize inmates on electronic monitoring devices and alternative work programs.
"I believe realignment has offered up an opportunity to reinvent how we perform our law enforcement duties," Pazin said.
The Sheriff's Department also has a mobile reporting center that travels to different parts of the county to keep tabs on inmates on electronic monitoring devices, Pazin said.
According to the sheriff's 2012 crime data, eight homicides were reported in the county's unincorporated areas, compared with 11 the year before. Twenty-three homicides were reported in the county in 2012 and 14 in 2011.
The FBI released data last month which indicates crime statewide is on the upswing.
The FBI data compared nine categories of crimes for the first part of 2011 with the same time frame in 2012 in cities with a population of 100,000 or more.
Violent crime is up 4 percent in the state, including a 7.6 rise in murders, a 7.8 percent hike in rape and a 2.8 percent increase in assault. Other crime rates rose, including robbery, 5 percent, burglary, 10.3 percent, and auto theft at 12.8 percent, according to the FBI.
City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.