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Sep 2011
Sheriff's, Probation departments brace for shift of inmates, increased caseloads

Probation officials shifted caseloads on Thursday while the sheriff's department finalized security plans as Los Angeles County braced for this weekend's overhaul of California's correctional system.

The so-called "prison realignment" beginning Saturday will transfer the state's responsibility for lower-level drug offenders, thieves and other convicts to county jurisdictions.

An estimated 9,000 parolees will be added to the caseloads of the Probation Department, whose workers already oversee inmates released from county jails.

The Sheriff's Department will have to find room in its jails for an additional 7,000 inmates convicted of non-serious, non-violent and non-sexual felonies.

Gov. Jerry Brown said Thursday this sweeping overhaul of the correctional system would help the state save money, reduce the 70 percent recidivism rate, and bring the state into compliance with a U.S. Supreme Court order to ease prison overcrowding.

"It's bold, it's difficult, and it will continuously change as we learn from experience, but we can't sit still and let the courts release 30,000 serious prisoners," he said.

"We have to do something, and this is the most viable plan that I have been able to put together."

Assistant Sheriff Cecil Rhambo said the department is capable of handling the expected influx of inmates - at least the initial wave.

"Because this is so new, I don't think any county is quite completely ready for the unforeseen consequences of this act, but I think we've planned for quite a bit," he said.

"I think we're as ready as we're going to be."

As of Thursday, the nation's largest jail system had 15,784 inmates and about 4,000 vacant beds. Realignment, however, is expected to bring in about 7,000 inmates this fiscal year.

Rhambo said certain areas of county jails that have been closed for various reasons will have to be reopened. Even with those, however, county jails are likely to be full by next March.

To increase capacity, Rhambo said the sheriff is considering making more low-risk inmates eligible for release wearing monitoring ankle bracelets, and assigning some to "fire camps" where they can serve as hand crews for the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

He is also looking into contracting with Community Corrections Facilities run by municipal police departments.

District Attorney Steve Cooley has opposed realignment from the beginning, warning that lack of space in county jails will lead to criminals being released early.

At present, because of overcrowding, inmates at county jails serve only about 20 percent of their sentences.

"Defendants responsible for a wide variety of felony crimes will escape appropriate sentences," Cooley said. "The crime rate will predictably and significantly rise."

Proponents of realignment, however, said putting inmates in county jails means they will be closer to home, jobs and rehabilitation programs, and so will be less likely to commit new crimes after being released.

Sheriff Lee Baca once sought to be put in charge not only of inmates but also parolees under realignment.

However, the county Board of Supervisors upheld the governor's recommendation to have the Probation Department supervise low-level felons paroled from state prisons after Oct. 1.

Upon their release, the parolees will be given a bus pass and $200, which is the normal procedure. Instead of reporting to a parole officer, however, they will have to report to a probation officer, who will act as their caseworker.

The probation officer will help them to secure housing, receive treatment for mental illness and substance abuse, and refer them to community-based organizations that can provide other services.

Chief Deputy Probation Officer Calvin Remington said his department is not new to this job - it already supervises thousands of adult offenders.

Realignment, however, will require the department to watch over an additional 9,000 parolees this fiscal year alone.

Probation Chief Donald Blevins had planned to hire 88 additional officers before realignment took effect, but the Board of Supervisors delayed authorizing the positions.

As a result, the department is trying to make do with existing personnel, so that some probation officers are forced to double or triple their caseloads, so that others can be freed up to handle the incoming parolees.

"It presents a hell of a public safety problem," said Ralph Miller, president of the L.A. County Deputy Probation Officers Union.

Probation Director Andrea Gordon, the president of the Professional Managers Association, agreed.

"If you have too many probationers on your caseload, you can't see them as often, and you won't have the time and ability to link them to all the services and the resources that they need," she said.

Gordon said failing to provide the resources needed to supervise the parolees defeats the purpose of realignment.

"They need the right intensity of services, or they're going to keep cycling back into the criminal justice system," she said.



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