FAIRFIELD — About 400 people who in previous years would have been in state prison are instead in the Solano County jail, making up about 44 percent of the local jail population.
Another 400 former state prison inmates are on local streets under the supervision of the Solano County Probation Department. They still would have been in the community during previous years, but they would have been on parole under state supervision.
About a year after it started, California’s “realignment” policy to shift responsibility for some felons from the state to counties is hitting home in Solano County. Law enforcement officials who previously expressed concerns about this sudden change are instead having to cope.
Sheriff Thomas Ferrara called realignment the most dramatic change he’s seen in law enforcement during his 30 years in the business. The problem is the state made the move before the county could get its own programs in place, he said.
“We’re now playing catchup,” he said.
Gov. Jerry Brown signed California’s realignment policies in April 2011 and they took effect in October 2011. The state at the time faced budget deficits and a court order to reduce its prison population.
The law introduced the concept of ”yes-yes-yes” and “non-non-non” offenders. Anyone convicted of a felony involving what the state considers a violent, serious or sex crime goes to state prison. Anyone convicted of what the state deems a non-violent, non-serious, non-sex felony now goes to county jail instead of state prison.
In addition, the state is requiring former “non-non-non” inmates to be under the supervision of county probation departments rather than under the supervision of state parole.
Along with responsibility for these felons who previously would have been in state prison or under state parole, Solano County is to receive about $8.6 million annually from the state to enact local programs.
Brown in 2011 described realignment as a benefit for both the state and its various communities. The state prison system had become a revolving door for lower-level offenders and parole violators who were released within months, he said.
“Cycling these offenders through state prisons wastes money, aggravates crowded conditions, thwarts rehabilitation, and impedes local law enforcement supervision,” Brown said in a press release.
Fairfield Police Chief Walter Tibbet at a January 2012 City Council workshop had some critical words about realignment. He said the “low-level offender” population includes felons who stole cars and broke into homes.
“The idea that these individuals haven’t committed serious or violent offenses is an affront to all of us who work with this population,” Tibbet said.
A year later, Tibbet remains critical of the way the state handled realignment.
“Sadly, some of my and other chiefs’ predictions have come true in that there’s been an increase in the number of crimes around the state,” Tibbet said. “Most of them are property crimes.”
For example, Fairfield crime statistics for 2012 show burglaries rose 18 percent, thefts 4 percent and auto thefts 43 percent. While he worries about making one-year comparisons, a jump seems natural given the presence in the community of people who are considered at high risk to commit further crimes, Tibbet said.
“As I talk to colleagues around the state, anecdotally most all of us are seeing similar data,” Tibbet said.
However, not all cities have seen a crime increase. Suisun City recently reported that its crime rate decreased by 17 percent last year, including a 35 percent drop in burglary, an 18 percent drop in theft and a 14 percent drop in robbery.
An August 2012 report by the Public Policy Institute of California said realignment makes it more difficult to return parolees to prison for non-felony parole violations and caps jail sentences for such violations. But it came to no conclusion on whether realignment will increase or lower crime rates and said the effects might vary between counties.
“Of course, crime fluctuations may involve numerous other factors as well, including the changing demographics of the population and changes in citizen or police activities,” the report said.
Meanwhile, Solano County tries to cope with realignment’s effects on its jails and Probation Department.
Solano County has two jails, one on Clay Bank Road in Fairfield and one in downtown Fairfield. Those jails are seeing a sudden influx in inmates who previously would have been in state prison.
So far, there has been room, Ferrara said.
Solano County jails faced overcrowding five years ago, to the point where some inmates slept on cots because no beds were available. Then Vallejo made cuts to its Police Department amid budget problems that prompted the city to declare bankruptcy, leading to fewer arrests being made. That left space available in the county jails to handle realignment.
The jails can hold 1,081 inmates. They now house about 854.
More jail space is coming. The county is building a 362-bed, $89 million Clay Bank jail expansion that is to be finished in summer 2014 and was originally conceived to deal with existing overcrowding, not realignment.
Ferrara expects at some point that Solano County will again face jail overcrowding problems as a recovering Vallejo increases law enforcement efforts and realignment continues.
The second prong to realignment is the 400-plus former inmates now being supervised by the county Probation Department.
“They’re the same folks who have traditionally come back to our community under the parole system,” county Chief Probation Officer Christopher Hansen said. “They have always been there.”
State parole still handles people convicted of violent crimes, Hansen said. The exception would be if a person convicted of a “non-non-non” crime had previously committed a violent crime. This person would go to state prison, rather than jail, but would be released to the supervision of the Probation Department.
The Solano County Probation Department already assessed more than 2,400 adults annually for supervision services before realignment. It added about eight probation officers, a supervisor and clerical support to meet the added demand of the realignment population, using money from the state.
Hansen said the former state prison inmates who are now supervised by the county pose a challenge. They tend to be more sophisticated criminally than the typical probation population.
“You go to school. That school is prison. Who do you hang out with all day?” Hansen said.
Under this theory, people who go to state prison are around other criminals and come out of prison as better criminals themselves.
Realignment is hitting home in Solano County, on its streets and in its jails. Whether it will end up being a good or bad thing for the county in the long run remains to be seen.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.