Officials find no easy conclusions in prison realignment review

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comMarch 20, 2013 

— Nearly 18 months after the state's prison realignment law took effect, Merced officials agree the jury is still out on whether it meets its intended goals.

Gov. Jerry Brown's vision for Assembly Bill 109 -- to reduce prison overcrowding and inmate recidivism -- is being weighed against its potential impact on crime.

The comments by local law enforcement officials follow meetings this month between Brown and researchers about the impact of the law. Brown said he was concerned about the way counties are managing their jail populations and acknowledged he's mulling potential changes to the law.

Although Merced-area law enforcement leaders said Wednesday it's too soon to draw conclusions about whether the law has increased crime, they reflected on what hasn't been working.

Scott Ball, Merced County's chief probation officer, said the law's funding formula shortchanges Merced County by allocating money based on census data and inmate population.

As a result, Merced County receives about $12,000 per offender, as opposed to $30,000 in some Bay Area counties.

The district attorney and public defender's offices split $150,000 per year in AB 109 funding, Ball said, which isn't enough to cover associated costs.

Ball has joined the county's chief executive officer, Jim Brown, to advocate for a fair funding formula as part of a realignment data committee.

As funding challenges continue to mount, it's put pressure on the county's 24 deputy probation officers who provide supervision services to the AB 109 clients.

Since the law passed, about 600 more adults have come under the probation department's supervision, but there's been no increase in the number of officers.

Ball credits the county's human services and mental health agencies for providing services without using all of the AB 109 allocations.

With proper funding, Ball said, the law could work, but it's too soon to blame it for any spikes in area crime rates.

"It's only been a year and a half," he said. "We need to give this some time and let the process work out, then take a look at the data after a couple years down the road."

Norman Andrade, Merced police chief, said it's a "huge assumption" to say the law has had no impact on crime.

"I understand what the state is trying to do, but I think there is some correlation between the law and a rise in certain crimes, especially property crimes," Andrade said.

"There are more criminals out on the street due to local authorities not being able to arrest them. And when you arrest criminals for non-violent stuff, they are back out there committing the crimes," he noted.

Overall reported crime in Merced went up 25 percent in 2012, the most dramatic upswing the city has seen in more than 10 years, according to data released by the Police Department.

However, crime in the county's unincorporated areas went down more than 5 percent in 2012, data from the Merced County Sheriff's Department shows.

Andrade said the reasons for the contrast are obvious -- more parolees and criminals go to where the city is.

"That's where the greatest concentration of people are, so there's more opportunity for crime in the city," Andrade said. "Anybody willing to commit a crime has a greater opportunity where there's more people, more houses and more opportunities."

Andrade agreed that it's too early to make a final determination about the law, but said a few things are clear.

"Is it saving money? Yes," he said. "But is it causing a greater impact on the cities? Yes, it is. There's more criminals on the street and less criminals behind bars."

District Attorney Larry Morse II said he's not surprised by the spike in some Merced city crimes.

"What's happening is when you're sending low-level criminals back to the county, most are going to end up in the city," Morse said. "The best we can do is put the offenders back into some productive role in society."

Morse said the fear with AB 109 is that it becomes an unfunded mandate -- meaning that counties are given new responsibilities without adequate revenue to implement them.

While the law has clearly reduced the state prison population, Morse said, there have been some growing pains and a few oversights.

For example, none of the drug dealers busted in a major transnational raid last year -- seizing 330 pounds of meth -- would go to state prison under the realignment law.

That's because AB 109 doesn't differentiate between low-level drug dealers and major traffickers, Morse said.

Morse said he's involved with the process of adding these guidelines to the existing law. Still, he's reserving judgment on the law's success until data collected over a longer period of time can be evaluated.

Sheriff Mark Pazin, who's been a supporter of AB 109, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. However, Pazin has denied there's a correlation between AB 109 and increases in local crime.

A recent report by the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice supported that notion.

Analyzing FBI statistics, the report found 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.

Pazin relayed a message through Deputy Delray Shelton, department spokesman, saying: "It's too early to tell (if the law is successful), however, our program is a template for success. So far, it's been successful."

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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