According to data collected by cities and counties throughout California, crime is up across the board. Law enforcement agencies, government organizations and citizens alike have felt the dramatic increase in crime and are beginning to question what caused the drastic fluctuation and how to stop what law enforcement officials from across the state are calling an increasing crisis.
“I’m sure the hundreds of violent crime victims and their families would agree that we are in crisis,” David Brown, Chief of Police for the City of Hemet said. “It’s a lethal formula when you release thousands of violent criminals in a county with a severely undersized jail system and understaffed police departments.”
A problem decades in the making, only recently-passed legislation, mandates and laws help residents understand how California came to be in its current situation.
Understanding AB 109 (Public Safety Realignment Act)
To abide by a federal court’s order to decrease California’s prisons population in April 2011 the California Legislature and Governor Jerry Brown passed Assembly Bill 109. It was intended to cut the number of inmates in the state’s 33 prisons to 137.5 percent of design capacity by June 27, 2013. At the time, the state’s prison system was operating at roughly 180 percent of its designed operating capacity.
Under AB 109 mandates, certain “low-level” felonies would require incarceration in county jails, as opposed to state prisons. This helped the state prison system meet its court-ordered reduction in population but also strained an already overcrowded county jail system in many counties throughout the state.
In addition, all newly convicted, non-violent, non-serious and non-sex offenders, the “three nons” or “N3,” without current or prior serious or violent offenses now serve their sentences in county jail, instead of state prison. AB 109 also mandated that instead of reporting to state parole officers as they did previously upon release, these “N3” offenders are now being supervised by county probation officers.
Although AB 109 was designed to prevent overcrowding prisons, Riverside County was already dealing with its own overcrowding problems. Since 1993, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department has been operating under federal court order, requiring the release of inmates whenever any of Riverside County’s five jails exceed their own maximum capacity.
During the first 19-years after the federal court Order in 1993, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department was forced to release 24,236 inmates early due to lack of jail bed capacity. Overcrowding forced the number of releases during the first four years following AB 109 realignment to surpass the entire 19-year combined total by more than 4,000 additional releases. By 2015, the sheriff’s department was forced to release 28,742 inmates from custody early to stay in compliance.
Understanding Prop 47 (“Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act”)
In an effort to ease jail overcrowding caused by AB 109 realignment, California voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 47, referred to as the “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act” by supporters. Under new Prop 47 guidelines, some nonviolent offenses, including possession of drugs like cocaine, heroin and Rohypnol, were re-categorized as misdemeanors rather than felonies.
“The year 2015 was the year of early release,” Harriett Fox, a Northern California correctional officer wrote in a 2015 article for PoliceOne.com. “In October, some 6,000 prisoners were identified for early release into their communities as part of the federal government’s ‘retroactive sentencing reductions for nonviolent drug offenders.’“
Police chiefs throughout California also expressed concern about the increasing phenomenon of “frequent flier” criminals – individuals who exploit Prop 47 to commit new crimes.
Sean Hadden, the City of Murrieta’s Police Chief said, “Although those that authored and supported Prop 47 state it is too early to equate the rising crime across California on Prop 47, there is little doubt in the law enforcement community that it is a big contributor.”
The combined effect of AB 109 and Prop 47 on Riverside County jails
Overall, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department has seen an 18 percent decrease in the number of jail bookings. However, the number of inmates in custody based on AB 109 mandates has continued to rise. According to sheriff’s officials, the increase of AB 109 realignment inmates has effectively negated any anticipated relief from Prop 47.
“We have been operating at maximum capacity since realignment began. Unfortunately, that is why we are still being forced to release people,” Riverside County Assistant Sheriff Jerry Gutierrez explained.
Because many N3 inmates are considered long-term, the jail population for Riverside County has only increased, leading to a lack of available beds for inmates. When taking into consideration the continued population growth and overall size of Riverside County, the number of available beds is significantly inadequate, according to sheriff officials.
Post-Release Community Supervision (PRCS) was established by Public Safety Realignment legislation as a form of county supervision for inmates being released from state prison and already serving time for one of the newly designated N3 crimes. Judges can impose “split sentencing” for people convicted of N3 felonies. Split sentences require a portion of one’s sentence spent in county jail with the rest spent under “Mandatory Supervision,” where the county probation department supervises probationers.
To help deal with the early release of PRCS probationers requiring Mandatory Supervision, Riverside County public safety agencies formed multi agency task forces, such as the Post-Release Accountability Teams (P.A.C. Teams) to make sure that those people on Mandatory Supervision and PRCS comply.
The sheriff’s department has also continued to expand its “alternatives to incarceration programs.” The county offers full and part-time Work Release as well as full and part-time Supervised Electronic Release. Additionally, the county continues to contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for inmate fire camp beds. The sheriff’s department is also exploring housing inmates in other counties.
Citizens and law enforcement officers feel biggest impact
“AB 109 impacted the county jails and county probation the most,” Hadden explained. “The county jails were not designed to house prisoners for long periods of time. They do not have the medical, recreational and other required services long-term housing requires. Essentially, the State pushed their responsibilities onto the counties.”
Brown agreed with Hadden, “It is our communities that have taken the brunt of the impact and we must now find ways to reduce and prevent crime with fewer resources,” he said.
Many law enforcement officials throughout California agree those who have suffered the biggest impact of the changes are the crime victims and front-line law enforcement officers who are forced to interact with the criminals released due to jail overcrowding.
“Far too many good people have been victimized unnecessarily as a result of poor policy,” Brown explained. “Cities in California that decide to make public safety a priority will thrive, those that don’t will be overrun. It’s that simple.”