Contra Costa implements plans to deal with prison reform

On May 23, 2011 the California Supreme Court ordered the state to dramatically reduce the number of detainees in prisons on the basis of cruel and unusual punishment. As a result, between 37,000 to 46,000 inmates will be released in the coming years. In order to manage the influx of prisoners, the California legislature passed Bill AB 109, the Public Safety Realignment Bill, which took effect October 1, 2011. AB109 shifts responsibility for non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual offenders to counties. The challenging transition from state to local oversight is highlighted in Contra Costa County, where county officials are already facing difficulties.

California allocated $4.6 million to Contra Costa for enforcement of AB 109, which is significantly lower than the estimated cost of $8.1 million. The additional parolees will affect the budgets of multiple programs in the county, including the sheriff’s department, District Attorney’s office, and mental health services. The sheriff’s department estimates receiving over 29 inmates per week for the next 90 days. Thus, the greatest portion of funds, $3.5 out of the $4.6 million, will go to the probation office and sheriff’s department, which will be directly responsible for the returning inmates. Most of this money will go towards adding additional jail space, purchasing electronic monitoring devices, and case management.

Despite AB 109’s goal of reducing recidivism, Contra Costa County will use only a small portion of the funding, only about $900 thousand, on social and rehabilitation programs for returning inmates. Furthermore, Contra Costa will lose an estimated $777,000 in state funds previously received for housing parolees before they were sent to state prison. To reduce costs amidst these changes, returning inmates will also be given “hybrid sentences,” a more cost effective system requiring offenders to serve detention time followed by electronic detention. To cover the aforementioned losses, Contra Costa County is attempting to raise money through other means – applying for private grants, federal grants, and collaboration with non-profits.

Despite these challenges, Contra Costa County may have it easier than some. Although AB 109 was passed less than five months ago, the county has already developed enough space to house more inmates- at least in the short term. Contra Costa County Jail has a 190 vacant medium-security and transitional beds. Two new facilities have also been created, West County Facility and Clayton’s Marsh Creek, which will be operational this week. They will hold 119 and 60 prisoners, respectively. However, Contra Costa County’s only high-security prison, the Martinez Detention Facility, is almost at full capacity with 693 of the 694 spaces filled. This capacity problem will force other constraints on detainment throughout the county. Cities like Richmond will have apportionment problems with the disproportionate amount of gangs they will receive and, as such, will have to separate more dangerous inmates through a process of reclassification.

Contra Costa County’s challenges are not unique. Each of California’s 58 counties is making a similar transition and facing similar challenges. Groups like the ACLU have offered their own “12 key elements” to supplement county planning, although it is unclear which counties have used them, but as AB 109 takes full effect in the coming months, more changes are likely to be made.

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