- Associated Press - Sunday, October 26, 2014

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - As Gov. Jerry Brown seeks re-election next month, Republicans say decisions he made to reduce prison overcrowding are endangering the public by putting more criminals on the streets.

About 13,000 inmates a month are being released early from crowded county jails while they await trial or before they complete their full sentences. More than 5,000 state prisoners had earlier releases this year because of federal court orders, legislation signed by the governor and a recently approved state ballot initiative.

Yet those statistics don’t tell the full story.

Crime rates statewide actually dropped last year and did so across all categories of violent and property offenses, from murder and rape to auto theft and larceny, according to the most recent figures from the state Department of Justice.

County sheriffs and probation chiefs say they are concerned about getting too little financial support from the state and too many dangerous offenders in their jails. At the same time, they say they are doing their best to make the 3-year-old policy shift work, in part by devoting more of the staff and money they do have to rehabilitation programs.

Under the law, known as realignment, those convicted of lower-level offenses serve their time in county jails rather than state prisons. It is one of California’s responses to a federal court order to reduce its prison population.

As thousands more felons are sent to local jails, county sheriffs have been forced to free up space by releasing those awaiting trial or serving time for misdemeanors.

Early releases from county jails are up roughly 65 percent during the most recent three-month period for which data are available compared to the same quarter before the realignment law took effect.

Early releases from state prisons also are accelerating under the orders to reduce prison crowding and because voters approved Proposition 36 two years ago, restricting the use of life sentences for career criminals.

“If they’re not in the state prison, that means they’re out in the community,” California State Sheriffs’ Association lobbyist Aaron Maguire said. “There’s definitely a concern about an increased number of victims.”

While crime has not spiked, critics of realignment have seized on a few real life stories in an attempt to show that the law is endangering the public’s safety.

One of those most commonly cited is that of a parole violator who was released from jail early and then beat his girlfriend so badly that she suffered brain damage. Another offender who also was freed from jail early subsequently was charged with raping and killing his 76-year-old grandmother.

“Governor Brown said he’s not going to release dangerous people, only nonviolent, non-serious, non-threatening - and they’re being released onto our streets and they’re committing heinous crimes again,” Republican challenger Neel Kashkari said during a gubernatorial debate last month.

Brown responded that realignment represents “the biggest change, probably, in our prison system in the last 40 years” and will take time to succeed.

Even as crime rates have dropped, realignment is presenting challenges for counties throughout the state. The total county jail population in California has increased by nearly 11,000 inmates since realignment took effect in October 2011.

Probation departments now handle offenders whose most recent convictions are for lower-level crimes but who may have serious or violent criminal histories.

County officials also say they are ill-equipped to deal with other offenders who used to go state prisons, including those with mental illness and those serving multi-year sentences.

“The population most likely to be the most problematic is the population being funneled to the counties,” said Margarita Perez, who was acting chief of the state’s parole division before realignment took effect in October 2011 and now is assistant probation chief in Los Angeles County.

Despite the tougher population, probation officers said they are becoming better at handling those inmates.

“There’s more of a culture of tolerance, more of a culture of using any resources at your disposal to try to get this individual to turn around instead of a philosophy of lock them up,” Perez said.

Dean Pfoutz is one of those trying to benefit from the new emphasis on rehabilitation.

His roughly two decade-long criminal history includes a three-year prison sentence for assault and another eight years for an assault causing serious injury to a girlfriend. He most recently served 16 months for receiving stolen property.

Despite his violent past, he is being supervised by Sacramento County probation officers instead of state parole agents because his most recent crime, possession of stolen property, is considered a lower-level offense.

Pfoutz said he is benefiting from the county’s approach.

“It’s more hands-on here than parole. With parole, it’s like, ‘Just don’t get arrested,’” he said before attending a self-help class at the probation center he visits five days a week. “They’re pulling for us to do all right.”

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