County braces for influx of state prisoners

Dan McDonald
Staff Writer

Transfer will cost county more, fill the jail and strain probation resources


Editor’s Note: This story is the first of a two-part series. Part two will run July 13.

County dumping. Passing the buck. Bad legislation. An unmitigated disaster in the making.

Those were just a few of the terms used by members of the county’s criminal justice system during a recent roundtable discussion about the impact Assembly Bill 109 will have on Plumas County.

Plumas County’s Sheriff Greg Hagwood, District Attorney David Hollister and Chief Probation Officer Sharon Reinert gathered for a roundtable discussion June 28.

All three were openly critical of the new law that will transfer non-violent felons from the state prison system to the counties.

The Plumas County jail has just 67 beds. Those beds likely will fill up within a year, according to the panel.

They talked about the far-reaching effects the law will have when it is implemented Oct. 1.

Following are excerpts from their one-hour discussion.


A matter of money

Hagwood: I think it’s important that everybody understands that this is nothing more than a way for the state to save money.

They (state lawmakers) are trying to market this as counties having the ability to better recognize and address their own special needs and develop programs that are more tailored to their particular populations.

This isn’t going to benefit the counties in any way, shape or form.

Hollister: This year, we have sent 20 people to prison, approximately. Let’s just assume we send 40 people to prison in a year.

The Department of Corrections tells us that it costs about $48,536 a year to house an inmate. Forty prisoners at that rate is $1,941,440. They are giving us essentially $199,000 to meet that obligation. So it just doesn’t add up.

The crux of how we deal with AB 109 is how we in Plumas County are going to be able to maintain the standard of living and the level of safety that we not only expect, but demand, up here.

Hagwood: And this comes as the county is facing seven-figure shortfalls.

What I take great exception to is how boldly these state-level secretaries and officials look you straight in the face and try to convince you that this is really a great idea. And this is really going to be something beneficial to your community. … It’s going to be an unmitigated disaster.


The devil’s in the details

Hagwood: We could be housing these — what have historically been state inmates — for three, five, six, eight, 10 years.

This is something that state-level officials are acutely aware of.

The devil’s in the details in this. The state knows it. And they are not being very forthright or honest.

And unless you’ve got a staff that can sit and dissect this 600-page piece of legislation, you are not going to be aware of it.

I’ve had the opportunity to meet with legislative aides to the sheriffs of San Bernardino County and San Diego County. They do have the staff to digest this 600-page document, and there are some really frightening aspects of what’s in there … the potential for housing inmates almost indefinitely.


And after the jail is full?

Hagwood: The state has very generously said, “Well, if you run out of room, you can send those inmates back to us, but we are going to charge you.”

And the state will charge us a rate that far exceeds what they are giving us … so, we are losing money on it.

And, we’ll meet capacity at our jail within a year. …

The state may advertise it as “obviously we are not doing a very good job. We think you can do it much, much better. Because you (counties) are so innovative and you know your communities and your population.”

Then they wipe their hands, and they dump it in the laps of the counties.

And then the state says, “Counties, if you need more money … well you are more than welcome to raise your own taxes.” So they are shifting the burden of what has always been at the state level to the Board of Supervisors, the district attorneys, the sheriffs. And it’s really outrageous.

I’m all for being responsible for our own people. And if that’s in fact what (the state) wants to do, then the county shouldn’t be sending its tax dollars to the state. We should keep it right here.

Hollister: Greg just touched on a huge problem I see with this: When the economy improves — and it will at some point — they didn’t cut any state taxes with this. We are still sending the same amount of money to Sacramento.

So when the economy improves, we are still saddled with this (inmate) obligation. The (state) is still keeping the state dollars and all we are doing is breeding a larger government at the state level. … And still reaping no benefits here at the local level.


County jail becomes a mini-prison

Hollister: It is likely that our jail will no longer be a misdemeanor jail.

We are going to have to be creative and we are going to have to find alternative forms of sentencing. (Chief Probation Officer) Sharon (Reinert) is going to play a huge role in that — whether it is electronic home monitoring, whether it’s picking up trash on the side of the road through (the sheriff’s) department, but we are going to have to find alternatives for our misdemeanants.

Some people might say, “It’s just a misdemeanor, what’s the big deal?” … It is a big deal. The third-time DUI offender is supposed to spend 120 days in jail. That’s what the Legislature says.

We want (the sentence) to be a deterrent. But we also want to be assured — at least for some period of time — that guy’s not going to go out and kill somebody on the roads.

What we are going to see, unfortunately, is the worst-case scenario happen. We are going to have somebody sitting at home, drinking beer, who is supposed to be serving 120 to 180 days for their third-time conviction on a DUI within 10 years. They are going to decide to hop in the car and they are going to go out and kill somebody.


Felony sentences

Hollister: The other thing we are going to have to deal with is felony sentences. From our perspective, we are going to have to make sure folks understand, even with AB 109, there is a cost to committing certain crimes.

Quite candidly, we are going to have to be creative in doing it. If that means increasing fines and taking a tax some other way, we are going to have to do it.

I don’t want to find ourselves in a situation up here where it’s like San Francisco.

Someone breaks into your house in San Francisco, you call the police, and they say, “Go look at our website, download the police-report form. You fill it in, you email it back to us and we’ll try and get to that for ya.”

We don’t live like that in Plumas County and we’re not going to.

Reinert: It sends the wrong message. If you are criminally oriented, there is no fear of what is going to happen to you.


Probation office overload

Reinert: Right now I have one officer doing a high-risk caseload, and he’s got about 70 people on it, which is way too many people.

This whole thing changes the way we do probation. Now we are probation/parole officers.

And so we have got to try and create ideas to help the jail with releases, which will be the electronic-monitoring program or house arrest of some sort.

I would like to have an officer just monitoring that caseload. Because obviously those are going to be high-risk people who should have been going to prison.

Hagwood: Geographically, this is a big county. And if you have got a probation/parole officer out in Chilcoot, and you suddenly develop a need for him at Lake Almanor, you have a problem.

The county’s budget doesn’t provide opportunities for Sharon to add greatly to her (probation) staff. And I’m not going to be able to add anything to my staff.

We are down 25 percent from where we were 10 years ago. It’s not a good situation.


Prosecuting criminals

Hollister: I want to reiterate my commitment.

My office, I know, the probation office, the sheriff’s office as well … we are going to do everything we can to maintain an appropriate level of safety … and to enforce the laws to the best of our ability.

I don’t want to take the position that we are not going to prosecute misdemeanors, because we are.

We are going to have to be creative in finding appropriate punishments that deter future crime, punish the current crime, but don’t tax our resources to the extent that we cross that tipping point … that we become unable to function. And therein lies the challenge.

We are all going to find ourselves making very specific, very difficult choices.

We are going to have a situation where we have a domestic violence defendant, who is pending trial, who has made threats against a victim. … And vying for the bed that he’s holding in jail are going to be three other felons. We are going to have to figure out who gets that bed, and how we are going to safeguard our community in the best way.


County dealt a bad hand

Hollister: I think right now in Plumas County we have an exceptional set of professionals running the agencies, who are not only talented, but who are dedicated. And I think that is really important.

There is no denying we were dealt a horrible hand on this. And I firmly believe that AB 109 will impact rural counties to a far greater degree than it will impact urban counties.

I think we are going to see that.

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