Shasta County Grand Jury Sounds Alarm On Prison Realignment Spending

In a pair of scathing reports, the Shasta County Grand Jury has accused the Shasta County Board of Supervisors of improperly using state funds allocated for rehabilitation programs to fund county jail operations, even as a budget deficit looms for public safety spending.

The two reports, “Community Corrections Partnership—AB 109 Funds, $45.7 Million For Public Safety—Where Has It Gone?” and “Shasta County Jail: Funding And Capacity, A Public Safety Crises Deepens,” offer unflinching criticisms of the board and the Community Corrections Partnership’s handling of AB 109 funds.

AB 109 prison realignment is the sweeping criminal justice reform passed by the Legislature in 2011. It had two primary goals: reduce the unconstitutionally overcrowded conditions in the state prison system and reduce the absurdly high rate of recidivism of state prison inmates, which exceeds 70 percent, according to some measures.

That means seven out of 10 state prison inmates are re-arrested after completing their sentence. Before AB 109, most were returned to prison, exacerbating prison overcrowding.

To reduce the prison population, AB 109 shifted—realigned—the responsibility for punishing and rehabilitating criminals classified as non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual offenders from the state prison system to county jails. To reduce recidivism, the legislation, which is funded by vehicle license fees and the state sales tax, financially encourages counties to adopt evidence-based rehabilitation programs that have been scientifically proven effective.

To help oversee this massive realignment project, the state required each county to form a Community Corrections Partnership. The CCP is comprised of the chief probation officer, the chief of police, the sheriff, the district attorney, the public defender, the presiding superior court judge, a representative from the board of supervisors, the heads of various county health and social service agencies, including education and housing; a representative from the nonprofit community and a victims’ rights representative.

It’s a fairly large crew that’s had difficulties meeting regularly. According to the grand jury, Shasta County’s CCP has been lax in its oversight of AB 109 funding since its inception.

“The Community Corrections Partnership does not routinely collect evaluative data or require program evaluations to show that current spending is effective in reducing recidivism, the intent of AB 109 legislation,” the grand jury found.

The grand jury contends that without this data, the board of supervisors cannot effectively allocate AB 109 funding. As a result, instead of focusing on expanding the county’s limited evidence-based rehabilitation programs, supervisors have been using AB 109 money to plug gaps in the general fund to cover operating expenses for the jail.

“There has been no audit to determine whether AB 109 funds are being allocated as designated by AB 109,” the grand jury report found. “Budgets and minutes of the Board of Supervisors and Community Corrections Partnership indicate that AB 109 funds have been used to replace rather than add to Shasta County general funds for public safety, indicating the need for such an audit.”

The grand jury’s report on jail capacity begins by recounting the overcrowding issues that have dogged the facility since 1993. The jail’s current capacity is 341 inmates, even though a prior-needs assessment recommended capacity be boosted to 518 inmates. The county plans to add 60 beds later this year.

In order to maintain the jail’s present limit of 341 offenders, 30 inmates who would otherwise remain incarcerated are released every day. Despite the fact that lack of jail capacity has been highly publicized for years, Shasta County still doesn’t have an official plan to do anything about it.

“The Shasta County Board of Supervisors has not developed a short or long-term plan to match Shasta County Jail capacity needs with identified operational funding sources, despite multiple assessments showing a critical jail bed shortage in Shasta County,” the report stated.

To make matters worse, because the CCP has been dipping into its AB 109 reserve fund to pay for general fund expenses, the reserve fund will soon be depleted, resulting in potential cuts to AB 109 programs.

“Based on current funding and program spending, a 25 percent reduction in AB 109 budgets will be required in FY 2020-2021 once unspent balances are depleted,” the grand jury reported. “Unless the Shasta County Board of Supervisors finds an alternate funding source, Shasta County will be unable to maintain current levels of public safety services.”

Shasta County executive officer Larry Lees admitted the CCP’s projected budget deficit is cause for concern, but denied the grand jury’s claim that AB 109 funding has been misallocated by the board of supervisors.

“We’re still scratching our heads on that one,” he said.

Contradicting the grand jury’s depiction of a county asleep at the prison realignment wheel, Lees said he and his colleagues have been working closely with members of the CCP, including attending graduations at the Probation Department’s Day Reporting Center.

“I feel very comfortable with the information we’ve been given from the DRC,” Lees said. “Even the worst result is better than what was coming out of the state pen.”

Lees granted the grand jury one point: the board of supervisors has not selected an official representative for the CCP, as required by AB 109. Lees said that’s set to change, now that supervisor Mary Rickert has volunteered for the position.

“I offered to sit on the CCP committee to better inform myself as to the finances surrounding AB109,” Rickert said via email. “I do believe that we need to address the options of providing more extensive services for rehabilitation and treatment for those incarcerated, which are consistent with some of AB109 funding objectives. If we are to mitigate crime statistics in Shasta County, we need to address substance abuse issues.”

Rickert declined to respond directly to the grand jury reports in lieu of waiting for the board’s official response. Nevertheless, the reports got her attention.

“I am very concerned about the grand jury’s predictions of an upcoming shortfall, and that is one of the reasons why I am meeting with [Shasta County auditor-controller] Brian Muir to see if he agrees with their calculations.”

Shasta County received $39 million in AB 109 funding between 2011 and 2017, 90 percent of which was spent between two departments, Probation and the Sheriff’s Office. Approximately $20 million, 52 percent, went to Probation and $12 million, 31 percent, went to the Sheriff’s Office.

The grand jury has called into question the Sheriff’s portion of the pie, most of which has been used to open and operate the second and third detention levels of the jail, fund the work release program and pay for out-of-county jail beds. In the past, all of these budget items were either paid for by the general fund or other revenue sources.

“AB 109 funds have been used to maintain the capacity of the jail as county budgets remained flat rather than increase the number of beds post-realignment,” the report said. “Capacity at the jail is no higher than it was in 2008, despite two out of three detention levels being funded by AB 109.”

The grand jury asserts AB 109 funds can’t be used to maintain jail capacity because the problem existed before AB 109 became law. This may be a questionable line of reasoning, given that legislators anticipated AB 109 would impact county jails and allocated funding to mitigate those impacts. Nevertheless, the grand jury argues this ongoing funding may be in violation of the law, or at least the spirit of it.

“The law also states that AB 109 funds shall not be used to replace existing county public safety funding,” the grand jury said.

The grand jury recommended that the board of supervisors agree on the present and future capacity needs for the Shasta County Jail by Sept. 30. It advised the supervisors to adopt a 10-year funding plan for jail capacity expansion and to identify ongoing, new sources of revenue to fund the project by next March.

More than half of the county’s AB 109 funding — $20 million since 2011 — has been spent on probation services and accounts for 45 percent of the department’s budget. Probation staff has been more than doubled, from 25 to 55. AB 109 helps fund mental health programs, alcohol/substance abuse treatment, educational services and employment outreach for the 2000 to 2200 offenders Probation supervises each month.

It also funds the Day Reporting Center, where high-risk offenders receive intensive behavioral intervention services in the department’s primary evidence-based program. It’s operated by a private contractor, GEO Reentry Services, that meticulously monitors its therapeutic interactions with offenders, tracking meeting attendance, drug test results, employment outcomes and numerous other data points. This data is then processed and periodically presented to the board of supervisors.

What have we learned during the four years the DRC has been in operation? Well, the longer offenders remain in the DRC’s three-phase program, the more successful they are at remaining sober, obtaining employment and staying out of trouble. Every six months, classes ranging in size from 6 to 18 offenders complete the program and successfully transition back to society.

The grand jury came away impressed with the DRC’s evidence-based practices, and cited the fact that the board of supervisors have thrice voted to cancel expansion of the program as evidence supervisors are not focusing on one of AB 109s primary directives, reducing recidivism through evidence-based programs.

“A key example of evidence-based programming being rejected in favor of funding for non-evidence-based programming is the possible expansion of DRC to the Burney Area or East Redding,” the grand jury reported. “Even though a number of potential participants are located in those areas, the expansion was voted down in 2013, and again in both 2017 and 2018.”

Despite recognizing the DRC’s success, the grand jury remained critical of the CCP’s performance overall.

“The grand jury notes that the CCP has allocated less than 20 percent of its funding for evidence-based programming, based on annual reports it submits to the Board of State and Community Corrections,” the report said. “These reports do not comment on recidivism data. With few exceptions, the CCP does not collect data which would allow it to conduct evaluations of the effectiveness of its funded programs.”

The grand jury recommended that the CCP begin providing quarterly reports on county-wide recidivism rates and its percentage of evidence-based programs to the board of supervisors by Sept. 30. Chief of Probation Tracie Neal may beat them to the punch.

Neal said the DRC has been working on a detailed report tracking re-arrest and re-conviction rates of its offender-clients over one, two and three years period. She’s excited about the results, but is holding them close to the vest for the time being.

“We go above and beyond for that recidivism data,” Neal said. “The data is very good.”

Neal plans to release the data at CCP’s public meeting in July. Meanwhile, the board of supervisors has less than 90 days to respond to the grand jury’s reports.

Stay tuned.

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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