Parole hearing historic, court says

Proceeding state's first at county level

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comJuly 15, 2013 

— Merced County Superior Court officials said they made history Thursday as the first court in California to hold a parole hearing at the local level, a change mandated by the state's prison realignment law.

Starting July 1, Assembly Bill 109 shifted the responsibility of parole revocation proceedings, traditionally a state function, to the county courts.

"This is just part of the AB 109 change of moving a number of people from state to county custody and jurisdictions," said Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II. "The theory is that services to inmates are better provided at a local level than the state."

Merced County Court Commissioner Jeanne Schechter was assigned to arraignments of eight people facing revocation of parole on Thursday. Some appeared through the court's video-conferencing system at the main jail.

"It's exciting and it's part of history in the state because we've never been involved in the parole process," Schechter said. "It's uncharted territory for us."

Despite being the first county court to handle these hearings, many officials worried about the additional workload presented by the shift in responsibility.

"It's a concern, because obviously we have to develop a process for handling it and training people," Schechter said. "It's hard to know exactly what the impact will be, but there will definitely be an impact."

Morse agreed that the change increases the workload for the county, though the effects remain to be seen.

"It appears to be more work, but we don't know how many cases we will be handling," Morse said. "Like so much associated with AB 109, there has been a wait-and-see aspect to it. It will be a few years before we know if this was a good thing or not."

Schechter said roughly 20 parole violation cases will be filed through the court system. However, she said, many are settled without going to court because the offender admits guilt and returns to custody.

Scott Ball, Merced County chief probation officer, said his department is not directly affected by the change, but he believes the county is still not receiving its share of funding for AB 109.

"We're receiving what we expected to receive, but we're still dissatisfied that the central region counties are not receiving funding per offender," Ball said.

The state slightly increased its basic allocation for the AB 109 program from about $842.9 million in 2012-13 to $998.9 million. For Merced County, that means a jump in funding from $5.2 million to $6.1 million.

Ball said that equates to about $12,000 per offender for Merced County; other, larger counties receive $20,000 to $30,000 per offender.

Court Executive Officer Linda Romero Soles said the court will be allocated about $43,464 this year to handle parole cases. That initial funding is based on an estimate of 66 cases.

"No one knows how many exact cases we'll have, so this was just an estimate," Romero Soles said. A survey will be taken mid-year to better determine the number of cases and adjust funding, she said.

"Hopefully we'll get more funding once we complete the survey. I guess we'll just have to wait and see," Romero Soles added.

Schechter said there are a few benefits to local handling of parole cases: the process will be more transparent because the public can attend hearings and parolees can be better connected to local services.

"As far as helping these individuals integrate back into society, it really is something that needs to be done at the local level," Schechter said. "I think sometimes at a higher level, like the state, you don't have the effects of the community working together to help the individual."

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

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