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Jun 2012
Calif. shuffles crimes under inmate-crowding law

A new law changing where some criminals serve their time is prompting anger from certain lawmakers who believe the state again is reneging on its promise to keep those convicted of violent and other serious crimes in state prisons rather than county jails.

California's sweeping realignment of its criminal justice system took effect nine months ago to address court-ordered reductions in overcrowding at state prisons. When the plan to shift thousands of inmates to county jails was unveiled local governments were promised only those convicted of nonviolent, nonsexual and "non-serious" crimes would be moved to local lock-ups.

The Associated Press first reported days after the law took effect in October that at least two dozen offenses shifting to local control could be considered serious or violent, prompting angry responses from local officials who felt blindsided. Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation last week shifting 10 crimes back to state prisons. Among them are several involving child sex offenses, selling drugs to a child in a park, seriously injuring a peace officer during an escape or while resisting arrest, and escaping from a mental hospital.

But the new law also shifts four more crimes to county jails. They include possession of certain dangerous items, such as certain explosives, various knives, and exotic weapons like guns or swords hidden in walking canes, belt buckles, lipstick cases, wallets or writing pens. Check fraud and defrauding the state's food stamp program also now merit time in jail instead of prison.

Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Roseville, said the shift of the weapons possession crimes to counties is "very surprising and scary," and Sen. Doug La Malfa said he was "mystified about how this is going to help public safety in California."

"I don't want them in my backyard ... violent crime, felonies involving weapons of violence," said La Malfa, R-Willows. "This isn't fear-mongering, this is reality."

Sen. Mark Leno, chairman of the Senate budget committee, said the changes merely fix drafting errors that will affect a small number of criminals who should have merited jail time all along. The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation estimated that about a dozen more criminals will be affected in any given year because most of the changes were already included in previous projections.

"Taxpayers will save money by having them serve time in county jail rather than in state prison," said Leno, D-San Francisco. "We're getting smarter on crime so we can better invest limited resources on education rather than corrections, which every poll shows Californians support. And of course education is our best known crime prevention tool."

Another new law lets sheriffs release inmates up to 30 days early to comply with population caps, up from five days previously; and release inmates on electronic monitoring immediately instead of requiring them to serve at least 30 days behind bars for a misdemeanor or 60 days for a felony.

Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, said in a statement that the changes mean "more un-rehabilitated criminals on the streets, serving only a tiny fraction of their sentences in jail."

Lawmakers also approved giving counties more freedom to transfer prisoners between counties because of jail crowding or if inmates need specialized care.

"We're just looking for flexibility," California State Sheriffs' Association lobbyist Nick Warner said in supporting changes that will let counties lower their jail populations.

The budget for the new fiscal year that begins Sunday includes $500 million for a new round of local jail construction and more than $900 million to help counties pay for their increased cost of handling the additional criminals. Every county will get at least double the amount of state money it received in the first nine months.

Brown wants to guarantee that money in the state Constitution as part of a proposal on the November ballot that also would temporarily raise sales and income taxes.

The budget also begins carrying out a broad reorganization of the Corrections Department that was announced in April. Officials are looking to save money, improve poor inmate medical and mental health treatment, and end years of federal court oversight as prison crowding eases because of the shifting of criminals to local control.

It includes money for three cell houses within existing prisons to house about 2,400 inmates with physical or mental disabilities or substance abuse problems. After the three dormitory-style units are built in four years, the department will close the outdated California Rehabilitation Center in the Riverside County community of Norco.

It provides funding to complete the California Health Care Facility in Stockton, convert the neighboring Dewitt Nelson Youth Correctional Facility into an adult care facility; and to improve other prison medical and mental health units statewide.

With the prison population declining, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst had recommended that lawmakers reject some of the construction money sought by the department. But Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate said the department needs the medical and mental health facilities to comply with court orders.

The analyst also recommended that the state continue housing some inmates in private prisons in other states indefinitely as a partial alternative to building more cells in California prisons. However, the budget endorses the department's plans to return all 9,400 out-of-state inmates to California prisons by 2016.



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