State's inmate shift means new approaches to probation system in Sonoma County

  • Program manager Kelly Lazzaretto, left, administers a breathalyzer test to Phon Phrasavath as he checks in at the Day Reporting Center, in Santa Rosa, on Wednesday, September 18, 2013. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Each day, at least 120 people blow into a Breathalyzer and are then buzzed into a single-story building behind a blue picket fence down the street from the Sonoma County courthouse.

It is the hub of Sonoma County's effort to rehabilitate hundreds of convicted felons once supervised by the state prison system.

They have carjacked vehicles, dealt drugs, fought with police, embezzled millions of dollars and committed a host of other crimes.

Sonoma County Probation Day Reporting Center


And the ability of these men and women to stay out of jail is at the heart of California's greatest criminal justice experiment.

The state is seeking to curb a decadeslong ballooning of its crowded prison system by shifting the responsibility of whole categories of criminals to counties.

Sonoma County has placed its bet on programs like treatment and detention alternatives, including electronic monitoring, as the way to keep these people from committing new crimes.

"That's the gamble for the long term," Probation Chief Robert Ochs said. "In my mind, it's much more of a gamble to lock them up and ignore the underlying problems. Where did that get the state?"

Over the past two years, the county Probation Department has remade itself to handle this influx of convicts from the state prison system.

In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its prison population by about 35,000 inmates after finding that health and safety conditions in the prison system were so poor that they violated the U.S. Constitution.

To comply, the state developed a system to reduce the prison population through attrition. It changed the California penal code to allow judges to send some offenders convicted of nonviolent, nonserious and nonsexual crimes to county jail instead of prison.

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