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)

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

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.

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.

And it made counties responsible for supervising whole groups of low-level inmates when they are released from prison. Previously, these felons were managed by state parole officers.

Since the Public Safety Realignment Act was launched in October 2011, the state's prison population has dropped by about 20,000 people. About 120,000 inmates remain in the state's 34 adult prisons.

The impact on the criminal justice system has been far reaching.

In just two years, California's realignment plan has shifted far more criminals to Sonoma County than anticipated.

The state projected that 416 people would be added to the average daily population at the Sonoma County jail and to the Probation Department caseload after the first three to four years. It surpassed that number in half the time. In less than two years, realignment has increased the average daily jail population and Probation Department caseloads by 497 people.

The bulk of those individuals — at least 60 percent — are not in the Sonoma County Jail. They are out in the community.

The county's probation officers and supervisors now are managing a more complicated and dangerous group of convicted felons than they did before realignment. About 65 percent have been classified as "high risk" by county probation officers.

That has required the Probation Department to beef up its ability to supervise felons, adding 12 new officers and supervisors, arming some of its officers and boosting tactical training, Ochs said.

The task is daunting: Historically, two out of three state parolees will commit some type of crime or violate the terms of their release that will land them back in prison.

"The holy grail is to reduce the chance of recidivism," Ochs said.

While some counties have responded by building new jails to house the influx of state felons, Sonoma County is taking a different approach. It has chosen to invest in developing programs to supervise felons outside the jail system while helping them forge new lives in society.

The county received just over $9 million from the state in the fiscal year that ended in June to pay for the impact of prison realignment. It spent 57 percent of that money on programming and detention alternatives — more than any other among the 19 counties for which data is available.

The hub of this philosophy is the Day Reporting Center in Santa Rosa, which opened in January 2012 on County Center Drive.

Released felons start out reporting there every day. Each person must pass a breath test for alcohol and sign in. They gradually earn greater freedom and flexibility by completing courses such as behavioral therapy and substance abuse treatment.

The facility is run by BI Inc., a Boulder, Colo., firm that operates 54 similar day reporting centers in the United States, including 18 in California.

But the services are local and involve classes run by the Drug Abuse Alternatives Center, financial training programs taught by staff from local banks and a GED program on Fridays run by the Sonoma County Office of Education.

On Wednesday afternoon, people filled most seats at a row of computers in the center's lab. The men and one woman were taking job skills training courses, answering questions for a behavior course and doing other work.

Several convicted felons said the Probation Department is far more hands-on than state parole agents.

Matthew Norton, 29, of Cotati, said he's spent a cumulative 13 years in prison for carjacking, passing fraudulent checks, assault with a deadly weapon and other crimes he says he's now working hard to leave behind.

It's not been an easy ride since he was released.

Norton has faltered twice during his stint with probation, including one time when he fell back into alcohol use and another time when he stopped attending classes after suffering a heart attack.

"At first I was like, 'hell no,' but it changed my life," Norton said. "I have friendships with my family now."

He's working several construction industry jobs, bought a home, has a girlfriend and two dogs and attributes part of his current focus to a newfound desire to stay out of prison and the intense level of scrutiny of his probation officer and caseworker.

Norton reports to the center three days each week and calls in two days each week.

In contrast, when he was on state parole, "the law only had to see me one day a month. That gave me 29 days to do what I wanted," Norton said.

The center, which has seen nearly 500 people since it opened, now handles about 160 active clients.

"This is an intense business. We're not going to fix everybody. You have to celebrate the successes," Ochs said.

About 28 percent of people released from prison and put under Sonoma County probation supervision between October 2011 and Aug. 31, 2013, have been arrested on suspicion of new crimes, according to Probation Department Statistics.

Realignment has resulted in greater leeway for Superior Court judges and probation officers to deal with parole violators, who once would have been sent back to prison but are now handled locally.

The courts also have greater discretion to offer detention alternatives for people arrested for misdemeanor crimes and individuals awaiting trial.

The Sonoma County Probation Department's 99 officers oversee about 3,000 clients, including 381 people who would have been under state supervision before realignment.

In contrast, there 472 active state parolees in Sonoma County who remain under state supervision.

Sonoma County probation officers, unarmed in the past, now sometimes carry guns. They've also undergone greater levels of tactical training and studied the volatile politics of state prison gangs that can spill out onto the street.

And all the work required at the Day Reporting Center is in addition to the supervision by probation officers, who make unannounced visits to people's homes and contact them out in the public.

A special unit of a dozen officers, including a detective from the Sheriff's Office and a CHP officer, deal with these higher-level offenders serving probation instead of parole.

The officers also are trained in a type of motivational interviewing designed to build rapport with clients and help them think positively.

On Thursday, a team of probation officers in two unmarked patrol cars drove up a winding road to a home in the hills above Guerneville.

They knocked on the door of David O'Neal, 49, who by his own admission has been in and out of jail and prison since he was a teenager for various crimes, mostly surrounding the sale and use of drugs.

The officers called for O'Neal to come outside. O'Neal had shown up for a drug test earlier that day at the Day Reporting Center as required and officers had recently searched his home. But they were back again.

With 119 days left of the drug tests, unannounced visits and other realities of probation, O'Neal said he's had to adjust to the stiffer requirements and felt he most likely benefited from it.

"I'd probably be selling weed if I wasn't on supervision," O'Neal said. "You've got to change yourself. I've been going through the system since I was 19 years old."

Across the county at a west Santa Rosa apartment complex, two officers in protective gear walked up the stairs to a second-story unit, avoiding the sight lines of a camera they knew the client had trained on his car in the parking lot.

The man's girlfriend met the officers on a balcony outside their front door and said he was at work and would be home in an hour.

They've been supervising the man since he was among the first state prisoners released to the county in 2011. They've seen him through hiccups such as when he was arrested on suspicion of battery after a fight in Healdsburg and successes in getting a job as a plumber and staying out of trouble for months on end.

Outside the apartment Thursday, the man's girlfriend, who identified herself only as Tricia, said that having the county involved is better for families.

She said her boyfriend had been given more chances to stay out of custody than he would have received previously. But if he went back, he'd likely go to the jail in Santa Rosa, rather than a prison facility sometimes hours away.

The proximity "is a lot more convenient for your family when you get in trouble," said Tricia, 34, noting that the jail and services are nearby.

Back in the patrol car, Deputy Probation Officer Darren Fravel, who oversees the unit, said officers now can choose to send someone to jail for a couple of days when they screw up, which is sometimes all it takes to get a person out of a crisis. In contrast, parole violations could send a person back to prison for a year.

"We have flexibility. We might put you on electronic monitoring, into a treatment program," Fravel said. "This has let counties create our own criminal justice plan."

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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