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San Bernardino Sheriff Considering 'Holistic Approach' To Incarceration

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‘Lock ‘em up’ attitudes shifting as state inmate transfers loom

By Chris Levister –

For decades Californians have demanded near Old Testament punishment for drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes, emboldened by the nation’s toughest sentencing laws, fear mongering and a zero-sum exercise in locking up the same people from the same neighborhoods generation after generation, without an end game in sight.

With California’s prisons bloated beyond capacity and the state under federal court order to ease overcrowding and expand health care for inmates, once tight fisted ‘lock em’ up attitudes are shifting gears.

“We’re looking at other alternatives then just putting people in jail.” That’s San Bernardino County Sheriff’s spokesman Lt. Rod Torres.

Faced with Gov. Jerry Brown’s recently enacted realignment plan to transfer thousands of low-level, non-violent felons to county custody starting next month, local governments are scrambling to dodge the bullet that could put county jails in the same crowded position as the state’s prisons.

Torres says recognizing the transfer plan’s almost certainty, Sheriff Rod Hoops and other county public safety officials began working with the Department of Behavioral Health, Department of Public Health, Probation and the County District Attorney’s office to find alternatives to incarceration for non violent felons.

“This is very preliminary but some of it may be vocational training, electronic monitoring, treatment for drug addiction and other modalities that offer a more holistic approach to low-level criminal behavior,” said Torres.

Don’t expect a mass exodus of inmates on county streets even if realignment takes effect. Torres said San Bernardino County’s Adelanto jail will be tripling its size, thanks to an infusion of $100 million in state funds. The project will add 1,368 beds to the 700- bed facility, helping to ease crowding at jails throughout the county. The work is expected to be completed by June 2013.

State Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate said, realignment would allow local officials to do a better job of getting services to lower level offenders.

“Local government knows these offenders. They came from their neighborhoods. And if properly funded, they can do a good job of supervising them, treating them and incarcerating those short-term offenders,” Cate said. “We really are out of time and we’re out of room. We’ve got to get this done.”

Resistance to anything less than a lock ‘em up attitude remains fierce particularly among local sheriffs, other law enforcement agencies and conservative legislators as they grapple with funding cuts to public safety programs.

Many had pledged to support a realignment package as long as there was a way to pay for it. But Brown’s signature without a funding deal has led to feelings of betrayal, as sheriffs worry that counties will get stuck with the bill.

“Where does the money come from?” San Diego Sheriff Bill Gore told the San Diego Union Tribune. “What do I quit doing to house the state’s prisoners? Do I release other inmates?”

“Tell your constituents to get a dog, buy a gun, and install an alarm system,” Sen. Sharon Runner, R-Lancaster warned.

“The state will no longer protect you.”

But it’s not up for debate that the state’s prison system needs a massive overhaul.

“It costs $49,000 a year to keep a person locked up in a California prison - almost seven times what we spend on each child in our public schools,” said Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, chair of the state Senate Public

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