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by Daniel Mintz, August 25, 2011
The county is preparing to absorb incarceration of some of the felons now sent to state prisons and will launch programs that replace jail sentences for lower-level offenders.
Approaches to realignment — the term that refers to the imminent shift of state prisoners to local jails — were described at an August 18 meeting of the Humboldt County Community Corrections Partnership.
The group consists of a variety of county officials, judges and members of community groups and is planning for the October 1 launch of realignment. County Probation Chief Bill Damiano said realignment’s major aspects include sentencing non-violent felons to local jails instead of state prisons and shifting the supervision of their paroles from the state to county probation departments.
With felons being sent to the county’s jail instead of prison, there will little room for lower-level offenders. “My staff is going to assess those individuals for their risk to the community,” Damiano explained.
One alternative to jail is using electronic monitoring for at-home sentences. The Probation Department’s existing monitoring program will be expanded.
New programs will also be launched and Damiano described a proposal to establish a “day reporting center” that would replace local jail sentences with vocational and substance abuse programs, mental health services and domestic violence intervention services.
He said the impacts of realignment are hard to completely predict but a main strategy is to reduce recidivism.
“Hopefully, some of the practices that we’re going to put in place will change the outcomes for these offenders, so that they’re less likely to re-offend,” Damiano continued.
But he suggested that it’s an experimental approach. “By offering support and supervision, perhaps they wont re-offend — perhaps,” said Damiano. “But of course, that’s an ideal.”
Many of the felons taken into the new county system will have already failed under probation and parole programs, he continued. And the county is “looking at restructuring what we’re doing with probationers as well,” a process that will “encourage offenders to start contemplating change.”
Probation staffers have been trained in cognitive behavioral therapy and “hopefully over time, we’ll see better, more positive results and less risk to re-offend,” Damiano said.
There is some doubt and fear, however. Including the fear that lower-level offenders who are given alternatives to jail will actually be more dangerous than their convictions suggest.
“With a lot of the domestic violence cases that I work with directly, a lot of the convictions start off as felonies and are pled down to barely recognizable misdemeanor charges that have nothing to do with what they’re originally arrested on,” said Dawn Watkins, the program manager for Humboldt Domestic Violence Services.
“I’m trying to predict the future and figure out how this is going to impact victims,” she told Damiano.
“Of course, we will prioritize violent offenders over non-violent offenders for those (jail) beds,” Damiano responded. “It will be that or another reasonable alternative.”
He added, “We’ll assess it and hopefully, the linkages will be there with the victims’ advocates to make sure that everybody’s safe.”
Damiano said there’s about $200,000 in state funding available for pre-planning and about $1.5 million for the operation of the first nine months of realignment.
During a public comment session, the impact of increases to recommended bail amounts was brought up by local bail bondsman Bill Davidson. Noting the presence of other bail bondsmen in the audience, he said the county’s increased bail schedule doesn’t make sense considering the lack of space in jail.
“We’re all ready to go out of business — nobody can afford to bail out of jail anymore,” said Davidson, adding that the county is “at the top rung for bail amounts.”
In interviews after the meeting, Superior Court judges Bruce Watson and Christopher Wilson disagreed, saying Humboldt’s recommended bails are in line with those of other counties.
A contract for alternative programs and expansion of the electronic monitoring program will be up for approval by the Board of Supervisors at its meeting this week, on Aug. 23.