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Posted on March 9, 2015

Prop 47 in Santa Barbara County


Prop 47  Struggles to Quantify its impact on Santa Barbara County’s Jail Time vs. Drug Treatment.



Prop 47 SantaBarbaraJail

Santa Barbara County sheriff’s Chief Deputy Laz Salinas






The heavy steel door slammed shut, a reverberation made louder by the silence found once inside the wing of the Santa Barbara County Main Jail.

“You notice it’s quieter,” said sheriff’s Chief Deputy Laz Salinas, who, as head of jail operations, noted on a recent morning that the wing was newer, built in 1987.

Eerily quiet.

Not two minutes before, Salinas had walked down fluorescent-lit hallways, past tattooed men in blue jumpsuits playing cards and laughing loudly or speaking softly on coin-operated phones to family members living outside the concrete walls.

In the calm, a row of isolation cells for men lined the right wall, beside an exact replica of an exam room you’d find in any doctor’s office.

One inmate stared blankly out the glass, brushing his teeth. Another slept, bundled under a white sheet.

As bad as it is, “it’s safer for them, too,” said Salinas, explaining that the inmates were either mentally ill or hadn’t yet proven they could cope in the jail’s general population.

How to better treat those who wind up in jail with mental illness or because of drug addiction was a key catalyst for California’s Proposition 47 in 2014. The so-called Safe Neighborhood and Schools Act is intended to reduce incarceration rates by treating nonviolent drug, theft and other low-level felonies as misdemeanor crimes.

California voters approved the ballot initiative last November, keen on the idea of lessening the law-enforcement workload so millions of dollars in savings could be reallocated to support mental-health and substance-abuse treatment programs, beginning in 2016.

But as local criminal justice officials deal with more immediate consequences of Prop. 47 — an increase in court workload to reclassify or re-sentence hundreds of cases and a freeing up of beds in the County Jail — they wonder whether the people’s initiative could’ve prompted a major social change without much debate.

•        •        •

So far, Prop. 47’s promises ring true: the jail population has gone down (some 17 percent), 92 adult probation cases were closed and hundreds of other cases are pending review.

Applications to reclassify Prop. 47 crimes must be submitted in the next three years. Common crimes covered by the law include drug possession, thefts under $950, forging or writing a bad check under $950, and receiving stolen property valued under $950.

Fewer felony arrests mean offenders are less likely to be held in jail prior to conclusion of their court cases.

With more beds freed up, Salinas can keep county-sentenced inmates for nearly all their time instead of releasing them a week or so early.

“We’re not releasing because we don’t have to,” he told Noozhawk.

On any given weekday, Salinas said, 20 percent of inmates in the South Coast jail are in court.

A typical split for pre-trial, or un-sentenced, inmates versus sentenced was 70 percent to 30 percent, he said. On March 3, the scales tipped 74 percent to 26 percent.

The maximum jail sentence for misdemeanor crimes is one year, compared to 16 months to three years for felonies.

Salinas said most misdemeanor offenders are cited and released, a fact backed by statistics showing a 42-percent decline in arrests and 92-percent increase in citations for narcotics possessions since November.

The day of Salinas’ jail tour, the main jail housed about 550 men and 80 women — “good” figures, he said, compared to a year ago, when the jail population burgeoned to 660 males and 106 females due to passage of Assembly Bill 109.

That “public safety realignment bill” was passed by the Legislature in 2011 and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown. The point was to reduce prison overcrowding by diverting convicted criminals to serve sentences in county jails — progress officials worry could be undone.

The jail population is back to pre-AB 109 levels, Sheriff Bill Brown said, but he stopped short of crediting Prop. 47.

Crime rates are down — a 36-year low, in fact — but Brown said the county is experiencing the same unintended consequences as other areas: an increase in property crime and decrease in offenders entering drug treatment to avoid jail time.

“We have seen a decline in our population of the jail, and that’s a positive thing for us because we’ve been overcrowded for so long,” he told Noozhawk. “What I worry about is that by reclassifying crimes, you don’t eliminate the things that are underlying activity. All you do is reduce the penalty.

“What I think is really a shame is that we had a system in place … to defer felonies. We’ve lost that.”

Worse, Brown said, Prop. 47 sends the message that using and possessing drugs like heroin is no longer dangerous or important.

Making an arrest for a misdemeanor is also more difficult for officers, he said, since they must be present when a crime is committed instead of merely having reasonable cause to believe one was committed, as with a felony. Probable cause was what allowed officers to obtain search warrants in drug cases.

•        •        •

A lessened court workload is the light at the end of the Prop. 47 tunnel, but the District Attorney’s and Public Defender’s offices are slammed in the meantime.

As of the end of February, Public Defender Raimundo Montes de Oca’s office had opened 927 files for people petitioning for Prop. 47 reclassifications or reductions.

Of those, 377 were resolved, 358 were in process, 83 were pending and 38 cases involved applicants currently in state prison, Montes de Oca said during a presentation of Prop 47 impacts to the county Board of Supervisors last Tuesday.

To paint a proper paperwork visual, he highlighted 13 random petitioners, which required staff to open 47 different felony files.

“In very many cases, we’ll see the person who wants the petition is not eligible,” Montes de Oca said, adding that convictions for crimes such as rape and murder or sex offenders don’t qualify.

District Attorney Joyce Dudley said her office was reviewing at least 200 more petitions and that 130 county jail inmates could be eligible for re-sentencing.

About 20 percent of eligible cases are litigated, she said, with the rest settled.

Dudley lamented that Prop. 47 took away prosecutor discretion and the ability to charge repeat offenders differently than first-timers, along with worry that treatment courts would see a decline in enrollees.

“I think we need to be careful in anticipating any affects to treatment courts,” Montes de Oca said. “The people who want treatment are going to get treatment. We need to find another better way to get our county residents into treatment when they need it and keep them there.”

Prosecutors swamped with Prop. 47 cases have already seen reprieve elsewhere, however.

Felony filings are down 39 percent countywide from a year ago, according to Superior Court executive officer Darrel Parker.

There were 536 felony charges filed between November 2014 and January 2015, compared to 880 during the same period last year, court records show.

Parker also calculated that Prop. 47 has required an additional 168 court hours and 378 staff hours, with each proceeding averaging 20 minutes in the courtroom and 45 minutes in clerical work.

The long-term benefits surely outweigh the one-time blip, said retired Superior Court Judge George Eskin, a Prop. 47 advocate.

When prosecutors overcharge with felonies, Eskin said, half of all cases stall for 90 days or more in preliminary hearing court, and half of those lag six months or more.

People avoid the stigma of a felony arrest, and a lighter load should provide time to find alternatives to incarceration and forced drug treatment, he said.

“A whole part of what Prop. 47 is all about — and was all about — was to get public officials to catch up with the public and understand the public does not want people in jail with mental illness … or for treatment,” Eskin said.

“I really question the underpinning of the traditional way of approaching drug treatment as a way to force on you. Drug addiction, in my opinion … is something that should be treated as a public health problem. Drug addiction should not be criminalized.

“It’s a hell of a lot less expensive to provide treatment programs than to lock them up.”

•        •        •

Prop. 47 is supposed to save the state $100 million to $200 million — funds it could funnel back to counties beginning in August 2016, according to a recent nonpartisan report released by the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

The report recommends funding mental-health and substance-abuse treatment programs (65 percent), with the rest for crime-prevention support programs in K-12 education (25 percent) and trauma-recovery services for crime victims (10 percent).

Reduced overcrowding could also improve a county’s ability to provide rehabilitation or health-care services to inmates by freeing up the space necessary to conduct classes and provide treatment, the report states.

A fraction of state savings could go to the county Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services, which is currently housing more defendants in its Psychiatric Health Facility because offenses were reduced to misdemeanors, said Dr. Alice Gleghorn, the agency director.

By contrast, the county Probation Department could see less state funding, since it might be monitoring fewer felony offenders.

A quarter of adults on probation — about 1,500 of 5,900 — appear to have at least one Prop. 47-eligible case, Chief Probation Officer Guadalupe Rabago said.

Refocusing resources is simply a byproduct of Prop. 47, said retired Los Angeles Deputy Police Chief Stephen Downing, who serves as a spokesman for LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition), a statewide nonprofit group of former criminal justice officials against the         War on Drugs.

More than 20 years in law enforcement turned Downing away from department tradition.

“What the reality is, is that so much of law enforcement’s effectiveness relies on making arrests,” he said. “There has been a reduction in arrests, which means that your police time is hopefully being allocated to helping the community.

“Law enforcement should try to support Prop. 47 because it is the will of the people. Rather than try to pull it down, they should give constructive criticism.”

Several state legislators are doing just that.

Last month, AB 390 was proposed to fix Prop. 47 by allowing DNA collection from criminals convicted of offenses that used to be felonies, storing it in the state database.

AB 150 would reverse the $950 “shoplifting” rule — asking to again consider petty theft a felony regardless of amount and including stealing a firearm — and AB 46 and Senate Bill 333 would return authority to prosecutors so they could file felony charges against suspects accused of possessing certain date-rape drugs.

•        •        •

“Today is a great day,” Salinas said during the recent jail tour, staring into one of four empty “safety cells.”

The closet-sized rooms were reserved for those in mental crisis, who might be a danger to themselves or others, where psychologists would check on them every 15 minutes.

Salinas was glad the cells were empty but even more pleased thinking about the improved services his staff could offer in the new North County Jail, which could break ground in Santa Maria later this year.

Prop. 47 may be freeing up space, but the sheriff said that doesn’t change the fact that the aging South Coast jail complex is still too crowded and needs to be replaced.

A musty basement wing housing 130 inmates, although it was designed for storage, speaks to some of that need.

The $96 million, 376-bed project was designed with more space for programming and for treatment of the mentally ill, who will no longer be relegated into isolation, Salinas said.

The Board of Supervisors, which has been more critical of Brown’s department since learning last month that the agency is facing a $2.2 million deficit related to overtime costs, wants to keep a closer eye on any Prop. 47 savings.

The board voted 4-1 last week to create an ad-hoc committee made up of representatives from criminal-justice agencies and ADMHS to monitor the effects.

Fourth District Supervisor Peter Adam opposed forming the committee because he, like many others, believes it’s too soon to tell what short or long-term impacts Prop. 47 might have locally.


By Gina Potthoff,

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