Recalling Redding City Council Members Won’t Solve Shasta County’s Crime Problem

Shasta County Jail. Photos by Doni Chamberlain.

In encouraging news, several local citizens involved in the effort to recall two Redding City Council members took their concerns about deteriorating public safety to the Shasta County Board of Supervisors in late August, calling the supervisors out on the county’s repeated failure to provide enough jail space to contain the rising tide of drug-and-alcohol-addicted petty offenders terrorizing the community.

To their credit, county officials responded promptly, in a Record Searchlight article one week later, saying an expansion of existing jail capacity was back on the table. Sheriff Tom Bosenko already has a tentative plan in the works; supervisors Leonard Moty and Les Baugh said they might even propose some sort of local tax increase to fund it.

I find this development encouraging because the recall movement, or at least some of its members, are finally on the right track. If they continue down this road, they’ll discover that the local crime problem has absolutely nothing to do with Redding City Council members Francie Sullivan and Kristen Schreder, whom they seek to recall, and much more to do with the historical criminal justice reforms that have swept across California during the past decade.

The most sweeping of these changes has been prison realignment, sometimes referred to as AB 109, legislation passed in 2011 in response to a federal court ruling that declared California’s overcrowded prisons were in violation of the 8th amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Prison realignment unfolded just as California’s criminal justice pendulum was swinging away from punitive measures like the Three Strikes Law enacted in the 1990s and toward more lenient penalties and rehabilitation, especially for non-violent, non-sexual, non-serious offenders. Under prison realignment, the hardest criminals remained in state prison system but the responsibility for incarcerating and rehabilitating lower risk criminals was transferred to county jails and probation departments—along with approximately $1 billion in total annual state funding to cover each counties’ increased costs.

The money is administered by the Board of State and Community Corrections. According to BSCC communications director Tracie Cone, Shasta County receives about $10 million annually, plus any additional grants its qualifies for, and is given local autonomy on how the funding is spent.

“The governor has been adamant that each county’s approach to realignment should be unique to the local populations served,” Cone informed me via email. “What works in Siskiyou might not work in LA, and the challenges and availability of services in each county are different.”

Locally, the spending decisions and grant proposals are made by the Community Corrections Partnership Executive Committee, which presently consists of Chief Probation Officer and chairwoman Tracie Neal, Sheriff Bosenko, District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett, HHSA Director Donnell Ewert, Superior Court Executive Officer Melissa Fowler-Bradley, Public Defender Jeff Goder, and interim Redding Police Chief Peter Hansen.

Shasta County, despite the fact it was still recovering from recession, seemed well-poised to take on realignment’s added responsibilities in 2011, with a $33 million, 232-bed medium security facility, to be funded by AB 900 grant money and local revenue, already in the planning stage. The new facility would finally address the jail’s longstanding overcapacity issues. And then, just like that, the deal fell through.

“The decision was based solely [on] the county’s inability to secure the annual financial resources necessary to staff and operate the new facility,” Shasta County Chief Executive Officer Lawrence Lees informed the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in Aug. 2012. The $33 million grant was reverted to the state to be redistributed elsewhere.

In what must have seemed like recurring episodes of Groundhog Day to Sheriff Bosenko, his proposed $20 million, 128-bed Adult Rehabilitation Center, tailored to the realities of criminal justice reform, was first whittled down to 64 beds in 2015 and then scuttled entirely last year, both times due to lack of local revenue to match state grant funding.

According to the ballpark figure presented by county officials, we’re anywhere from $2.5 million to $5 million short of the annual revenue needed to staff and operate an expanded facility.

Adding to the complications posed by realignment, the state’s voters passed Prop. 47 in 2014, which among other things raised the threshold for felony theft from $400 to $950 and reduced a number of other non-violent, non-sexual, non-serious crimes to misdemeanors, including hard drug offenses.

Prop. 47 achieved the laudable result of finally reducing the state’s prison population to the level mandated by the federal panel. But in certain locales across the state where jail space is limited, including Shasta County, it has morphed into what some describe as a catch-and-release program, where low level offenders, particularly drug addicts who commit misdemeanor thefts to feed their habits, are cited and then set free, because there’s no space in the jail, which is now reserved for hardcore felons who would have formerly been sentenced to prison or are awaiting sentencing.

The problem is fairly obvious: How do you force a low-level junkie thief into recovery without the threat of a jail sentence or at least probation? Fortunately in the overall scheme of California’s criminal justice reform movement, there are other options besides jail. This year, Shasta County seemed once again poised to take advantage of the reforms, and was in the running for a crucial $6 million Prop. 47 grant from the BSCC.

But in June, at the start of what has turned out to be a long, hot, angry summer, the BSCC informed informed Shasta County it wouldn’t be getting the grant, after all. Only 23 of the 54 counties applying for grants received awards.

Having followed the emotionally-charged debate revolving around street crime and homeless transients since I moved to Shasta County three years ago, I understood this was yet another serious setback, which like the county’s previous failed efforts to expand jail space, had virtually nothing to do with the Redding City Council.

It’s always tempting to point fingers during fierce debate, and when I contacted Cone at the BSCC, I had one of two culprits in mind: the state or the county. Cone quickly disabused me of the notion, held by many local law enforcement officials as well as myself, that Shasta County’s current crime problems are the result of of state prison realignment.

“That is a local communication problem,” Cone said. “Realignment is not contributing to an increase in statewide crime.”

I checked with the Public Policy Institute of California (as Cone suggested) and the PPIC has indeed revised its assessment on statewide violent and property crime rates since I last visited the issue. Formerly the PPIC had noted an increase in property crime statewide during the first two years of prison realignment and suggested a correlation; Shasta County saw a similar increase at the same time. Since then, the statewide property crime rate has come down. Shasta County’s property crime rate has also come down, although there is some debate as to how much crime is going unreported here.

My efforts to pin the blame on the county met with similar results.

I asked Cone if it was unusual for counties to revert multi-million dollar grants for jail expansions, as Shasta County had done on several occasions since prison realignment began.

“It is not unusual to revert jail construction awards from counties back to the BSCC,” she said. “Local conditions often change during the time it takes from application-to-award-to-establishment of projects. Sometimes it’s financial, sometimes counties decide that more and bigger jails are not the future.”

In Shasta County’s case, the reasons have been financial. But Cone pointed out that San Francisco recently reverted an $80 million grant because city officials believes jailing drug addicts and the mentally ill is no longer a viable solution.

“Most people in criminal justice reform believe that jail is the wrong place for both of these groups, and that they do better in treatment facilities that address their underlying issues,” Cone said. “This is one of the reasons why last year San Francisco returned $80 million in jail construction funding that it had received from us. It is far less expensive to treat someone out of a jail or prison than it is inside.’

It’s worth noting that both of Bosneko’s previous jail expansion proposals had a heavy emphasis on rehabilitation and treatment services. Cone said the fact that Shasta County continues to be awarded grants is an indication that its proposals are sound—if lacking the local funding to get off the ground.

“Jail beds are only a small part of the rehabilitative equation,” she said. “Even when counties have received jail funding awards it’s not to increase the number of beds, but to build more modern and efficient facilities that include space for rehabilitative programs.”

Despite recently losing out on the $6 million Prop. 47 grant, Cone pointed out that Shasta County’s Community Corrections Partnership has been quite successful at securing millions in grant funding for evidence-based programs like the Probation Department’s Day Reporting Center, the STEP UP program with Shasta College, as well as funding for mentally ill offenders and first-time parents.

While the BSCC doesn’t rate or compare compare the performance of counties, Cone said, “[I]t seems to me that Shasta County officials are aggressive and successful in applying for public safety grants. They seem to be doing a tremendous job in this area.”

All of this should be encouraging news. By airing its grievances at the county level, the recall movement has actually done a great service to the community. Increased jail space is back on the table, and so are the taxes to support it. It’s not going to be an easy sell in conservative Shasta County. Perhaps the recall campaign will consider abandoning its attempt to oust two city council members who have nothing to do with this issue and focus its efforts on supporting a tax proposal that might actually solve the problem.

It’s just a suggestion. According to the PPIC, from inception it takes anywhere from 5 to 7 years to get a brand new facility built. Might as well get started now.

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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