Gov. Jerry Brown has been quietly visiting California counties since the start of the year to see how they are faring under his 3-year-old realignment law that dramatically altered the state’s criminal justice system by increasing the burden on local governments.
He gave his verdict recently to a gathering of the state’s major law enforcement organizations: “I can report ... that realignment is working.”
Interviews with some of the local officials the governor has met with reveal a more nuanced picture.
Sheriffs, county supervisors and police chiefs told The Associated Press that they had pressed the governor for more money as they deal with a crush of additional inmates. They say the money is needed for new jail cells, inmate mental health counseling, and education and rehabilitation programs, among other issues.
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After meeting with Monterey County Sheriff Scott Miller in January, Brown said he would look through the Capitol “cookie jar” to see if he could find more money for counties.
“I’m still waiting to see what he found in his cookie jars,” Miller said. “I haven’t heard anything back yet.”
Reporters have not had direct access to the meetings between Brown and local officials, which in at least one case involved the governor talking directly to jail inmates. Most of Brown’s visits with county officials have not been announced in advance and do not show up on his official calendar. A spokesman said the governor’s office released photos on Twitter after each meeting.
The realignment law is a defining issue for the governor and marks one of the most significant policy achievements of his current term. Brown pushed for the law to help the state comply with federal court demands to reduce its inmate population and to reduce the amount of money the state was spending on prisons. Under the law, convicts who would have gone to state prisons are being kept in county jails.
The law has led to criticism from crime victim advocates, Republican lawmakers and even some county officials that it is creating the same kind of overcrowded conditions in county jails that gave rise to the federal court intervention in the state prison system. Overcrowding is forcing many counties to release convicts after serving only a fraction of their sentences, sometimes without supervision. And the harder-core inmates that counties are now housing have led to an increase in violence in the state’s largest jail systems.
The governor has visited 10 counties since mid-January, touring jails and meeting with inmates as well as with sheriffs, district attorneys, judges, county supervisors, police chiefs and probation officers to discuss the realignment law, which took effect in October 2011.
“He’s getting to hear what’s working and what’s not ... and what the state can do to help,” Brown’s spokesman, Evan Westrup, said.
To get a sense of what the governor has been hearing, the AP interviewed authorities who had met with him in five counties, representing a cross section of the state – large and small, coastal and inland.
Most said the discussions revolved around money to build and operate new jails, provide programs for inmates and track criminals after their release.
The state has provided nearly $2 billion for jail construction since 2007, with Brown’s budget for the coming fiscal year proposing an additional $500 million.
Riverside County in Southern California is using $100 million of the state money to build housing for about 1,300 jail inmates, but Sheriff Stan Sniff and Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff Stone said much more is needed to house inmates because of the county’s rapid population growth.
Stone suggested that the governor streamline environmental reviews for new jails, a change he said could shave more than a year off construction time and save money, as well.
“He said he thought it was a good idea. He took notes and said he would look into it,” Stone said of the meeting with Brown nearly three months ago. “I haven’t heard a thing.”
In Kern County, Sheriff Donny Youngblood worries that county jails built to hold criminals for no more than a year are now housing inmates for a decade or more. Brown has proposed modifying his realignment law so that inmates sentenced to more than 10 years would again serve their time in state prisons, but Youngblood thinks the sentence length should be shorter.
“Three years, from my standpoint, might be reasonable,” he said.
Kern County’s chief probation officer, David Kuge, said the county can provide more rehabilitation programs only if it receives additional state money. Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward said he made the same request of the governor.
Diane Cummins, the governor’s special adviser on realignment who accompanied Brown to many of the counties, said the state is unlikely to increase the operating funds it provides counties, but it might help with county-provided mental health and drug treatment programs.
Brown, speaking to the law enforcement gathering in Sacramento earlier this month, said he realizes local officials are under “a lot of stress” and would like to have more money, but he cautioned that the state can’t overspend.
Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson and county Supervisor Vito Chiesa said one key to making Brown’s realignment law work is having enough classroom space and money to provide drug and alcohol treatment and other programs that can keep criminals from committing new crimes.
The county has benefited from an $80 million state grant to build a new housing unit holding 456 inmates and will include classrooms and areas where criminals on probation can receive services.
“The take-home message (to the governor) is, if you want to see success in realignment, then the counties and local governments need help with the resources to do that,” Christianson said.