A majority of Humboldt County’s Board of Supervisors supports a ballot initiative to limit early prison releases but capacity issues could interfere with the initiative’s goals.
The backlash against propositions 47 and 57 and AB 109, which reclassify some non-violent felonies as misdemeanors, runs strong in the county.
Responding to it, most supervisors voted last month to support the Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act of 2018 ballot measure. Now in a signature-gathering phase, the initiative has been described as a means of amending the unpopular crime re-classifications and theft value thresholds that now distinguish misdemeanors from felonies.
Following up on those issues at their May 1 meeting, Humboldt County supervisors heard a presentation on bills in the state legislature that also seek to amend the ways that existing laws deal with repeat offenders and the scale of thefts.
But Interim Chief Probation Officer Shaun Brenneman suggested that it’s impractical to make changes that trigger longer jail and prison stays because of capacity issues.
“Today, the Humboldt County jail is over-capacity – today – and prison is still at 131% capacity,” he said. “So regardless of how we re-classify offenses, we’re still going to have to do this triage about who do we want to keep in our facilities and what kinds of offenses make the most sense.”
Most county jail inmates are awaiting trial, Brenneman continued, and the minority of inmates who have been sentenced will be the ones who get “early kicks” if new felony offenders are booked.
“There’s not a really great solution for it at this point and re-classifying offenses really doesn’t solve the jail (space) availability problem,” he said.
Alternatives to incarceration are being implemented, including for felony offenses.
Humboldt County District Attorney Maggie Fleming said that re-classifying certain crimes as felonies will in some cases trigger probation conditions like participation in drug abuse treatment or the Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program, not incarceration.
“That’s something I would like the public to know – the difference between misdemeanor and felony doesn’t necessarily mean that now somebody’s actually going to do jail time,” she continued.
In a presentation, Sean Quincy of the County Administrative Office said the legislative bills have very low odds of success, as Governor Jerry Brown doesn’t support what’s considered a “piecemeal” approach to the changes being sought.
The Board’s support of the ballot measure will continue despite the doubts about its practicality.
“Being the victim of numerous crimes, any time we can put a tool in the tool belt for Maggie to prosecute and (Brenneman) to hopefully rehabilitate afterwards, I think we’re going to follow that,” said Supervisor Rex Bohn. “With 47, 57 and AB 109, I’m going to have a hard time ever being convinced that they’re positive for a rural county.”
Supervisor Mike Wilson was the only supervisor who had voted against supporting the ballot measure. He had asked for more information on the legislative approaches and he noted that analysis of financial and other implications of the ballot measure is still lacking.
“That makes me nervous about what we want to promote,” Wilson said.
Supervisors heard Quincy’s presentation and discussed it but took no action.