Public Safety Realignment and the Rise of the Petty Criminal in Shasta County

Two men resting near the un-Safeway. Photo courtesy of crumblingtownreddingca.wordpress.com, one of several local websites that document rising crime in Redding.

Two men resting near what neighbors call the “un-Safeway”. Photo courtesy of crumblingtownreddingca.wordpress.com, one of several local websites that document rising crime in Redding.

At this late date, I think it’s fair to say Redding is a city under siege by petty criminals. Everyone knows it and the rising property crime rate shows it. It’s the talk of the town.

Gaunt phantoms stalk the streets and parks, aggressively panhandling every possible intersection and business, vandalizing and stealing from even the toniest neighborhoods, vanishing into local homeless and transient communities with impunity. When police do manage to nab a suspect, he or she is often immediately released because there’s not enough room in the jail to hold low-level offenders.

A woman sleeps on the sidewalk near the East and South street intersection one recent weekday morning. Photo by Doni Chamberlain

A woman sleeps on the sidewalk near the East and South street intersection one recent weekday morning. Photo by Doni Chamberlain

There’ve always been homeless people in Shasta County, but the level of aggression and criminality we’ve experienced during the past several years appears to be a new phenomenon. The citizenry is fed up. Even liberals are down on the down-and-out. Ask a conservative what the problem is, and you’re likely to get an answer similar to this anonymous online conversation I recently encountered:

“The supervisors here would rather get easy money by taking in AB 109 felons from other counties and states, IMHO,” says a supposedly in-the-know Shasta County resident.

“Whoa, wait, are you saying that Redding volunteers to be a sort of ‘sanctuary city’ for parolees from other cities and receives money for it?” asks an incredulous out-of-towner.

It’s a fact, according to Mr. Know-it-all.

“It’s been known by many that the city has been taking in felons for pay, and the drop off point for our new citizens is the Jack in the Box at Buenaventura Blvd., near the rescue mission, where felons are given $200 and told ‘you’re on your own.’”

Where the homeless are, according to the Public Safety Blueprint.

Where the homeless are, according to the Public Safety Blueprint.

I’ve heard at least a dozen different versions of the same theory regarding AB 109, the Public Safety Realignment Act, which was passed by the California Legislature five years ago. They all sounded plausible, until I came to understand the dramatic scope of the AB 109. Stanford Law School professor Joan Petersila, who has done extensive research on the legislation, calls it “a prison downsizing experiment of historic significance.”

“Experiment” is a word used often in the Stanford Law School’s research on AB 109. For a great primer on the topic, the school’s 2013 study, co-authored by Petersila, “Follow the Money: How California Counties Are Spending Their Public Safety Realignment Funds,” is highly recommended.

AB 109 was the inevitable response to voter-supported anti-crime initiatives in the 1990s such as the Three Strikes law, which dramatically reduced the crime rate but filled the state’s prison system to more than double its capacity, forcing the federal government to step in and mandate reductions in the prison population to relieve inhumane conditions.

In order to reduce the state’s prison population from 162,000 to 109,885, as ordered by federal court, AB 109 shifted (realigned) the responsibility for incarcerating and rehabilitating felony offenders convicted of non-serious, non-sexual and non-violent crimes from the state to California’s 58 counties. The counties also assumed supervision of non-serious, non-sexual and non-violent prison parolees; parole violators are now sent to the county jail, not back to prison.

While the state’s prison population has yet to reach the court-ordered limit, tens of thousands of “three non” felony offenders have since come under county control. That’s supposed to be a good thing.

“Theoretically, Realignment is designed to promote rehabilitation and reentry by moving offenders closer to their families and community-based services,” notes Petersila in “California Prison Downsizing and Its Impact,” published by Harvard Law & Policy Review. “Community agencies can more easily access inmates in local jails, building relationships and encouraging inmates to access their services after release. In fact, recognizing that change is best achieved at the local level and that counties are better at rehabilitating offenders than the state is one of the underlying premises of the bill.”

To fund realignment, AB 109 diverts billions of dollars from the state prison budget to the counties. Last year, about $4 billion was allocated. Shasta County received $7 million, according to the Shasta County Public Safety Realignment Plan.

Counties are required to establish their own AB 109 plans and given a wide range of discretion on how to spend funds. In “Follow the Money: How California Counties Are Spending Their Public Safety Realignment Funds,” Petersila and company broke down county budget expenditures by the percentage devoted to sheriff and law enforcement and the percentage devoted to programs and services and discovered some surprising results.

According to the study’s criteria, prior to the passage of AB 109, Shasta County fell on the political spectrum right about where most local residents would place it: a conservative county emphasizing law and order over programs and services. After AB 109 was passed, the county pulled an about-face, placing an increased emphasis on social services.

A common sight in Redding today. Photo courtesy of crumblingtownreddingca.wordpress.com.

A common sight in Redding today. Photo courtesy of crumblingtownreddingca.wordpress.com.

To briefly return to the anonymous conversation above, the Shasta County Board of Supervisors isn’t actively encouraging the state and other counties to dump criminals in Shasta County in order to get more AB 109 funding. The funding level is preset, based in part on the county’s estimated number of AB 109 felons during the 2006-2008 time period. What’s surprising is the current board, not exactly noted for liberalism, has chosen to focus funding on rehabilitation.

Gone are the days when inmates, upon release from prison, were given $200 and a bus ticket back to the county they came from. As a society, even here in conservative Shasta County, we’ve decided to help those who can be helped break the cycle of recidivism, which prior to AB 109 was a highest-in-the-nation 65 percent for state prison inmates.

AB 109 mandated that all 58 counties create Community Corrections Centers to corral the various public and private agencies involved in the experiment. The CCCs are overseen by Community Corrections Partnerships, comprised of department heads and stakeholders from the sheriff on down responsible for establishing each county’s Public Safety Realignment plan and reporting the results to the county’s supervisors.

In Shasta County the CCC is promoted as a “one-stop shop consisting of multiagency collaboration where offenders are provided with orientation related to their formal supervision requirements, assessment of their criminogenic and other needs, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and supervision in a coordinated fashion.”

“Criminogenic” needs refers to all the conditions and problems that cause individuals to become repeat offenders, from joblessness and poverty to drug and alcohol addiction to mental illness. According to the CCC, “evidence-based programming is utilized to facilitate successful reentry of offenders into the community after incarceration, and/or sentencing, in order to reduce recidivism.”

Evidence-based programming refers to the small but growing body of rehabilitation programs that have been scientifically proven to reduce recidivism. State Attorney General Kamal Harris, who’s running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Barbara Boxer on November’s ballot, has been a champion for prison sentencing reform and has developed a three-stage evidence based program that has been proven to push recidivism rates as low as 10 percent.

According to the Stanford study, one major key to the success of such programs is the ability for judges and other law enforcement officials to issue split-sentences for felonies that require the person convicted of the crime to serve both jail time and probation. Maintaining probationary status is conditioned upon the individual attending mandated cognitive therapy, treatment for drug and/or alcohol abuse, and whatever else is deemed necessary to meet the individual’s criminogenic needs.

Shasta County has been employing a three-stage program similar to Harris’ at the CCC’s Day Reporting Center for the past three years and is seeing positive results. According to the Day Reporting Center’s annual report released last April, 39 people completed the program in 2015-16, up from 24 the year before. If I’m reading the report correctly, all 39 were successful in finding both housing and work.

The fact Shasta County helped 39 individuals break the cycle of recidivism last year may not mean much to the person whose home or business was burglarized for the sixth time last night, but it’s at least a fledgling sign that progress can be made.

How much all of this is costing remains murky. AB 109 funds were used to reopen the third floor of Shasta County Jail in 2012; last year the jail, which now houses criminals who were once sent directly to prison and is filled to capacity, received nearly $1.5 million. The probation department, linchpin in the state’s plan to reduce the prison population’s 65 percent recidivism rate, received $4.4 million.

That used up most of the $7 million allocated to the county’s realignment plan, but perusing the county’s 2014-15 budget, I found a number of other departments that apparently receive AB 109 funding but aren’t included in the plan. County mental health programs received nearly $5 million. Another $5 million was kicked in for welfare cash aid payments, including food stamps. The social services administration received $7.6 million in AB 109 funding, presumably in part to cover the costs of inmate medical and dental care.

All told, it appears Shasta County received more than $25 million in AB 109 funding last year, 6 percent of its roughly $400 million budget. If I’m wrong about this, hopefully someone more knowledgeable about the county budget can enlighten me.

As the Redding and county-commissioned Public Safety Blueprint reported last year, Shasta County law enforcement as well as the program and service providers associated with public safety realignment are collecting enormous amounts of data, but little of it has been effectively analyzed. There’s a voluminous amount of information available online, but I’ve searched to no avail for any report on the recidivism rate.

I can say that on any given day, the jail is filled to capacity with 340 or so inmates. The majority are awaiting sentencing; a minority have been sentenced to the jail. There’s up to 200 more inmates in community supervised alternative custody—in some cases, they’re wearing AB 109-funded GPS anklets. That leaves who knows how many people out there running amok. How many more do we have to lock up and attempt to rehabilitate before our sense of public safety returns to something approaching normal? 50? 100? 500?

Considering the importance given to split-sentences in successful rehabilitation, I’m inclined to agree with the Blueprint’s recommendation to increase jail space—in addition to the planned adult rehabilitation center to be built in the near future.

“This situation is problematic as bed space projections in a recent 2013 jail facilities needs assessment shows a growing jail population approaching nearly 500 beds required by 2020,” the Blueprint found. “This will exceed the present jail space and the planned new ARC if it comes to fruition.”

However, it’s by no means clear to me that Measures D and E on November’s ballot, the half-cent sales and use tax and companion advisory that would raise $11 million annually for improving public safety in Redding, are absolutely necessary, for a number of reasons.

For one, since we aren’t effectively analyzing the data we’re gathering, it’s possible that the rise of the petty criminal in Shasta County is only temporary, and will eventually alleviate as we complete prison realignment. For another, there’s an enormous amount of AB 109 funding flowing into the county, and the county supervisors are permitted to reallocate it where they see fit. Conceivably, they could alter the public safety realignment plan to put more emphasis on punishment and less on rehabilitation.

No doubt that would please many of the county’s conservative residents, who supported the “war on crime” that created prison overcrowding in the first place and on principle oppose any government handouts to the needy, particularly convicted criminals.

However, there’s an ominous flip side to our current lack of effective data analysis. Our prison downsizing experiment is just that, an experiment, on a scale not seen since the birth of the modern prison some 200 years ago. Like any experiment, it can fail, and judging from the talk of the town lately, AB 109 is indeed failing, as far as the perception of decreasing public safety is concerned.

In that case, this could be the new normal, and voting for a half-cent sales and use tax might seem like a fair price to pay for a little peace of mind, no matter how temporary the relief.

R.V. Scheide

R.V. Scheide is an award-winning journalist who has covered news, politics, music, arts and culture in Northern California for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in the Tenderloin Times, Sacramento News & Review, Reno News & Review, Chico News & Review, North Bay Bohemian, San Jose Metro, SF Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, Alternet, Boston Phoenix, Creative Loafing and Counterpunch, among many other publications. His honors include winning the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s Freedom of Information Act and best columnist awards as well as best commentary from the Society of Professional Journalists, California chapter. Mr. Scheide welcomes your comments and story tips. Contact him at RVScheide@anewscafe.com..

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