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.