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HumCo Gauges Effects of New Public Safety Laws

The jail population impacts of public safety realignment have been offset by the voter-approved Proposition 47 but Humboldt County officials aren’t sure that the new law will ultimately reduce inmate levels.

Realignment took effect in October 2011 and redirects non-serious, non-violent and non-sexual felony offenders to county jail and probation systems instead of state prisons and parole. Triggered by prison overcrowding, realignment also expands rehabilitation services and its goal is to reduce recidivism.

That process takes time, however, and the prison-to-jail shift initially resulted in near-capacity county jail inmate populations.

Last November, state voters approved another law that downplays incarceration and increases rehab services — Prop. 47. It defines drug, property theft and other offenses that once could be prosecuted as felonies as misdemeanors.

With that change comes reduced jail sentences and in recent months, the Humboldt County jail’s population has indeed dropped. But it may be a temporary effect.

Duane Christian, the Sheriff’s Office’s compliance officer, said that prior to Prop. 47, jail population averaged from 350 to 370 inmates, with maximum capacity being 417.

The population saw quick decreases following Prop. 47’s passage last November. The law went into effect immediately and allowed felony offenders who were in custody to petition for sentencing downgrades.

Christian said that in November, 55 Humboldt inmates went back to court to ask for sentencing changes. In December, it was 46 inmates and 26 in January. The first three days of February saw only one inmate request a change.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean that all were released but a total of 128 people had their charges reduced,” said Christian. “I imagine that that a large portion of those people did get out.”

Christian said the most pronounced effect of Prop. 47 has been seen with the re-sentencings. Another phase is playing out now, as some of the people brought to jail for crimes that were once treated as felonies are cited and released rather than being incarcerated.

But misdemeanors can involve jail time. The basic difference with Prop. 47 is that maximum sentences have been driven down from three years to six months.

From mid-November on, Humboldt’s jail population has consistently been below 300 inmates. Aside from the re-sentencings, Christian was hesitant to attribute that to Prop. 47. He said population levels move in cycles and “we’re starting to see population creep back up.”

Bill Damiano, Humboldt County’s chief probation officer, also said there’s no demonstrable link between reduced jail population and Prop. 47.

Like realignment, Prop. 47 seeks to expand drug treatment and other services that help people stay out of trouble. With less state prison incarceration and prosecution of felonies, money saved is channeled into a state fund for rehab services.

That money won’t be available until late 2016 and Damiano forecasts that the funding will be “relatively small” for Humboldt County.

Damiano said that since Prop. 47’s approval, only five people who committed eligible offenses were diverted from prison.

That’s because of realignment’s emphasis on reducing prison populations. “After Oct. 1, 2011, everybody charged with a drug crime got mandatory supervision and not prison,” said Damiano. “Very few people are going to prison for Prop. 47-eligible offenses.”

Realignment also strives to keep lower-level offenders out of jail. The county’s realignment-funded pre-trial program allows low risk offenders to be assessed for jail alternatives such as electronic monitoring and supervision.

“If we’re putting low risk people in programs and not putting them in jail, we’re not disrupting the things that would likely keep them out of jail — things like jobs and stable housing,” Damiano said. “The science is clear — if you house a low risk offender in jail for as little as three days, you make it twice as likely for them to re-offend.”

Higher risk offenders also benefit from programs, though the percentages of success may seem modest. The county’s Employment and Training Division has run an on-the-job training and work experience program for realigned offenders since 2013, with 30 participants. 

The program’s rate of “entered employment” is 27%.

“The percentage is not huge but these are state prisoners, they’re seasoned,” said Damiano. “The rate we have is remarkable.”

He added that some people who were “miserable failures on parole” are now giving programs like drug treatment a chance. And increasingly, so is society.

“With all the changes, it’s pretty clear that both the state and voters think incarcerating people isn’t the best solution,” said Damiano.

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