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Sheriff: Influx of state prisoners making Sonoma County Jail more violent

The diversion of state prisoners to county supervision has changed the culture in Sonoma County's jail, making it more violent, while forcing the early release of petty criminals, Sheriff Steve Freitas said Wednesday.

Attacks on correctional deputies have increased 72 percent since the dramatic shift was instituted 12 months ago and fights between inmates are increasing, he said. However, he said he could not immediately provide specific data on the specific numbers of such incidents.

At the same time, the influx of more serious felons serving longer sentences has required the jail to release those convicted of lesser offenses on electronic home confinement, Freitas said.

Over nine months ending in September, the jail released 231 people eligible for detention alternatives who were serving time for such offenses as drunken driving, drug use and theft, Freitas said.

"We're getting more lower-level offenders out and more sophisticated offenders in," he said.

But a year after the state implemented the legislation to cut prison crowding, any further assessment of the program is unclear. There's a general sense that local officials can do a better job of supervising hundreds of parolees from prison. And millions of dollars have flowed from the state to pay for more deputies and probation officers.

But whether the so-called "realignment" will help improve a statewide criminal re-offense rate of about 70 percent is uncertain. It will take more time to compile and analyze those statistics, said Bob Ochs, the county's chief probation officer.

"It seems to be going smoothly so far," said Ochs, who heads the county's oversight group.

Under the new law, "nonviolent, nonserious and nonsexual" criminals who normally would be sent to prison instead are sentenced to county jail. And people released from prison on parole are falling under county supervision.

Since Oct. 1, 2011, 186 people convicted of crimes once prison-worthy have been sent to the jail for sentences as long as eight years. The jail has a maximum capacity of 1,400 inmates and a current population of about 1,100.

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