Tony Reed
Del Norte Triplicate

While the purpose of Assembly Bill 109, passed in 2011, was to close a revolving door of inmates cycling through the state prison system, the 2017-2018 report by the Del Norte Grand Jury says it has, in part, opened a revolving door for inmates of the county jail.

The report said while the state has provided money to offset costs of AB109, the jail was not meant to hold long-term inmates and its implementation has led to many bunks being tied up at the jail.

“The result leads to a near constant release cycle as inmates are released from the local jail to make room for incoming inmates,” the report reads.

According to a 2011 information sheet by the California Department of Corrections, AB109 was implemented to “close the revolving door of low-level inmates cycling in and out of state prisons.”

The report notes a complicated series of legislative actions, from SB678 in 2009, to AB109 in 2011, to Prop 47 in 2014 and 2016. The actions aimed to reduce recidivism in prisons, reduce prison populations, downgraded some drug felonies to misdemeanors and making early release and parole possible, respectively.

“Offenders who would have previously have been housed in state prison for the duration of their sentence and then monitored by state parole officers were now serving their sentence in local jails and being supervised by local probation officers after the completion of their sentence,” the Grand Jury’s report reads. “The sentences they are serving are shorter due to mandatory sentencing reductions and changes to split sentencing. The offender is given a shorter in-custody sentence and mandatory probation upon their release.”

Sheriff Erik Apperson said inmates aren’t released without careful consideration, and staff works to foster other options such as home detention. In most releases, inmates are given a date to appear in court.

Apperson said the entire jail is outdated and needs regular maintenance.

“We keep it clean and painted and repaired, but it’s old,” he said, adding that with the trends in legislation, the jail cannot accommodate the goals of AB109. “This jail was built to be a temporary facility but it’s evolved, or de-evolved, into a prison,” Apperson said.

The jail currently houses some inmates Apperson said he felt should be doing long-term sentences in prison. He said than when the jail reaches its limit of long term inmates, staff must then decide who to release.

“It’s a matter of space,” Apperson said, “We get a certain budget and it only provides for so many.”

Apperson said the purpose of AB109 was to reduce prison populations, which it did.

“The collateral damage is the county jail’s overpopulated,” he said. “The general public doesn’t realize that (those who commit) property crimes are being released when they’d like to see them in jail. It’s frustrating, and I’m frustrated, too. I’ve been a victim of crimes. I want people to face consequences.”

Apperson returned to the issues of AB109, saying more effort should have been made to give the state prisons more resources to reduce recidivism and make more space there.

“All that came out of this was more criminal behavior at the county level and a higher burden on the counties,” Apperson said. “Sure, we got the prison population down, but it didn’t fix any problems. How about we look for a plan that treats the root problems instead of the symptoms?”

Budget, not bunks

“As overcrowding occurs, the daily decision of who is to be released early frequently falls on the Sheriff’s Department,” according to the Grand Jury report. “The Sheriff’s Department has to decide who should be released back into the community regardless of the time remaining on their sentence.”

While it may seem the jail cannot hold any more inmates, it can but simply cannot afford to. Sheriff’s Commander Bill Steven is in charge of the jail’s operations, and said it’s actually “very infrequent” that short-term inmates are transferred out for lack of space.

Steven said while the jail has about 150 useable bunks, it’s currently only using about 90 of them. The Grand Jury’s report makes no mention of that.

“In a week, that could change,” Steven said, noting jail population fluctuates regularly. However, even if it were to surge, the jail would still be unable to fill all of its bunks, due to a 105-inmate cap.

Steven said the jail does not have the staff or funding to safely operate the facility at that population. He said the jail is divided into 10 dorms. Each time a new inmate is brought in, staff must carefully consider where to place that inmate to avoid potential conflict with others. He said many local offenders are familiar with each other, and many do not get along.

“We were trying to maintain 120 (inmates) at one time, and there was blood on the floor almost every day,” Steven said, noting attacks were occurring against both inmates and jail staff. “We just want it to be safe. Unless we get more money for more staff, we’re going to have to keep the cap at 105.”

Steven said he told Grand Jury members the answers to the issues of additional prisoners was to add staff and money.

“If I had more staff, that would be great, and if we had more money, it would be great,” he said, “but if we add more people with only 10 dorms, we’re going to be back to the same compatibility issues.”

Money matters

According to the report, a Community Corrections Partnership (CCP) committee of county stakeholders and agency representatives was established to oversee and advise the Chief Probation Officer on strategies to implement the reforms of AB109.

“The funds allocated to Del Norte County are approximately $1.3 million dollars annually,” the Grand Jury report states, later saying the jail runs yearly deficits that are offset by the county’s general fund.

County CAO Jay Sarina said the county has applied for renovation funding over the years in anticipation of increased costs of Propositions 47 and 54, which decriminalized certain offenses and lowered penalties for them.

“That resulted in shorter stays,” Sarina said. “We book them and let them go.”

Sarina noted funding applications were denied three times for renovation money, which was not for additional space, but for programs and implementation. He said some counties applied for money to build new jails, and money was given to some of the larger counties or those whose jails were less prepared to handle increased inmate numbers.

However, more funding goes more to inmates than to the jail itself, because once inside, inmates rack up costs in food, medical expenses and supervision.

“It’s a huge general fund expense,” Sarina said.

Asked if those costs can be directly traced back to AB109, Sarina said there is no concrete data which does so.

“We have inmates who qualify for AB109 reimbursements, who would otherwise be in prison,” he said, noting some are then released into community supervision. “Those become the responsibility of probation.”

Probation role, response

“The Probation Department has opted to spend portions of its allocated funding on weapons and armor, rather than funding more extensive evidence-based programs and trainings as part of the mandate to reduce recidivism,” the Grand Jury report says. “Spending amounts on armament and equipment is necessary in order to ensure that Probation Officers have an acceptable level of safety and security while out in the field. However, many of those interviewed expressed concerns that Probation is overly focused on law enforcement to the detriment of programs.”

Chief Probation Officer Lonnie Reyman said he is formulating an official response to the Grand Jury, but said the amount spent on weapons and protective equipment makes up a small percentage of his budget.

Regarding assertions the money was being spent on weapons rather than on programs, Reyman said. “I have to disagree with the Grand Jury.”

He said his department currently spends a significant amount of money on supervision of probationary inmates, along with education, parenting programs and other services.

“When you look at what we’re doing versus what we’re spending on weapons, there’s no comparison, in my mind,” Reyman said.

As for the weapons, Reyman said he would be negligent to send his officers into dangerous situations unprotected.

“The reality is that some of the people we are supervising are dangerous individuals. We supervise them and send some back to prison for doing the things that landed them in prison,” he said. “We’ve pulled guns and weapons off people with very violent histories.”

Although the report states the probation department has made no effort to implement a Day Reporting Center, Reyman said the concept has been mulled several times at committee meetings and continues to be discussed.

“Establishing a DRC as a single location for reporting, programs, and monitoring would help to promote a greater level of success for clients, as opposed to reporting to multiple locations,” the report states.

The Grand Jury made several other recommendations, including that a comprehensive plan should be made to guide the implementation of AB109, the sheriff’s department should create a formal policy for the release of inmates, and that the CCP committee share regular reports with the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors.

“An example of the type of programs that the Grand Jury feels are worth promoting and developing is the Del Norte Integrated Treatment Court (ITC),” the report states. “ITC was established to integrate mental health and substance abuse treatment with judicial supervision for the promotion of public safety, individual responsibility, ongoing recovery and reduction of recidivism.”

Such a program has been in place in Del Norte Superior Court under Judge William Follett since the beginning of the year.

“The Probation Department and partner agencies: Sheriff, Courts, Health and Human Services, etc., are without a holistic long term strategy for reducing the recidivism rate,” the report states. “Each agency is left to decide for itself the most effective way to serve the population affected by AB109 and the community at large.”

The report closed by recognizing Steven and Follett for their work in the jail and the Integrated Treatment Court.