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Sheriff: Inmate shift triggers overcrowding for Mendocino County jail

A little more than three years after the state began shifting the burden of housing low-level criminals from prisons to county jails, Mendocino County is struggling with overcrowding in its jail after a sharp rise in its inmate population.

It had 323 inmates as of Thursday, 22 more than the jail’s official capacity and a nearly 54 percent increase from its average daily population of about 210 before the state-ordered shift went into effect in late 2011.

“We have temporary beds and cots that we use” to make room, said Tim Pearce, the jail commander.

Jail officials also have upped the number of people on home detention and since January have been seeking early releases for nonviolent offenders to lessen the crush. Now, authorities are in the process of applying for $20 million in state funding to expand the jail, Pearce said.

They’re likely to face stiff competition for some $500 million that will comprise the latest round of facilities funding aimed at offsetting the effects of the incarceration shift on counties.

The move was aimed at reducing crowding in state prisons. But some critics say the effect largely has been to move inmate overpopulation problems to the local level.

“I think everybody has struggled with jail bed capacity to one degree or another,” said Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson, president of the California State Sheriff’s Association.

“Everybody is trying to figure out a solution,” Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said.

Many of the state’s 123 jails already were crowded when the so-called realignment order took effect. Altogether, local jails had a rated capacity of about 77,000 beds but exceeded that capacity by as many as 7,000 at times, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

The strain on local jails hit some counties earlier than others. Mendocino County didn’t feel it immediately because its jail population was relatively low before realignment.

“We knew the overpopulation was going to come later and later is now,” Pearce said.

In Sonoma County, realignment had increased the inmate population by an estimated 13 to 15 percent as of the fall. The county’s jail system this week was at about 88 percent of its 1,186-inmate capacity, officials said. The population has been held in check in part by shipping inmates to other, less-crowded jails. Currently, about 30 Sonoma County inmates are serving their time in Alameda County. Mendocino County had agreed to take some Sonoma County inmates, but that was before it exceeded its own capacity.

Not only are there more inmates in county jails statewide, they’re also incarcerated longer. Once limited to handling one-year sentences, jails are now housing inmates with far longer sentences. The average stay in the Mendocino County jail is now three years, with the longest sentence currently being served set at 14 years, Pearce said.

The influx of people who previously would have been sent to prison has brought additional problems to jails, including increases in violence, gang activities and medical costs, Pearce said.

In 2009, there were 39 inmate-on-inmate assaults and nine assaults on Mendocino County jail staff, he said. In 2014, there were 69 inmate-on-inmate assaults and 11 assaults on staff, Pearce said. Inmates have punched, kicked and thrown bodily fluids on staff, Pearce said. Inmates have suffered serious injuries, including concussions and broken bones at the hands of other inmates, he said.

If the county secures the funding for an expansion - Pearce said he’s hoping for an additional 60 beds - it will help address the situation. But larger jails aren’t the ultimate solution, he and Allman said. Treating mental illness and drug addiction and providing job training are crucial to reducing jail populations in the long run, they said.

“The jail is not a place people can get rehabilitated,” Allman said.

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