More state cuts could hit Merced County

With the county's budget deficit at $10 million, the state recently indicated that it intends to make more cuts that'll add to that burden.

The cuts include an increase of county payout for every minor housed at the Department of Juvenile Justice -- a state-run facility in Stockton that holds juveniles convicted of major crimes.

Merced County has 30 juvenile offenders housed in the DJJ, said Scott Ball, chief probation officer. Of those 30 juveniles, four are in for murder or attempted murder, two for manslaughter, eight for child molestation, one for rape, three for assault with a deadly weapon, 11 for armed robbery and one for burglary.

The county is billed $40,000 a year by the state for all the minors housed at the DJJ, but with the proposed cut, that number will jump to $125,000 for each juvenile, an annual cost of $3.75 million to the county, Ball said.

Since the county lacks the capacity and financial resources to detain and provide services to an additional 30 maximum risk offenders, officials may look into contracting out for services in other counties, he said. The cost of contracting out is unknown.

"We've been reducing our number of juvenile commitments for the past three years," Ball noted.

Juveniles who end up in DJJ are sentenced there by the courts with recommendations from the district attorney, defense attorney and probation department, he said.

The decision by the state, which is slated to be included in the Jan. 10 budget, would have a significant impact to services at the probation department.

The move would largely reverse Assembly Bill 109, which allowed for the release of state prison inmates who aren't sex offenders or convicted of violent or other serious crimes.

AB 109 also passed down money to local law enforcement agencies that monitor the released inmates. "It would devastate adult supervision, and it would devastate what AB 109 is set out to do," Ball said of the state’s latest decision to cut DJJ funding.

With the state's decision, general fund resources would need to be shifted from adult field services budget to juveniles, Ball said. The result would significantly reduce services to adult offenders, including those released from prison as part of AB 109.

"Services by the adult probation office would likely be limited to providing mandated duties for the court and supervising only a very small percentage of 3,300 adult offenders," according to Ball.

Several dozen offenders have already been released from state prison and are under the supervision of the Merced County Probation Department, he said.

"We were estimated by the state to receive 60 offenders from state prison between October and December, to date, we've received 89 packets to be released by December -- so that's a 33 percent increase," Ball said.

The increase in offenders means more work for the Merced County Probation Department.

"Based on the estimates that we were given and the added 33 percent of the population, I feel short-changed by the state," Ball said, adding that he's "cautiously optimistic" that the state will alleviate some of the DJJ costs by Jan. 10.

Supervisor Hub Walsh said county officials will probably negotiate with the state over the costs and implications to the county, as well as explore other options, such as contracting out.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsunstar.com.