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Looking Behind the Scenes: Prison woes to be kicked into our backyard

By: Jim Ruffalo
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Rewriting the notebook while waiting for Wednesday night’s State of the Union speech to see just how George Bush continues to cause all of our problems ... Apparently that former president is also responsible for all of our state budget woes, seeing as how no Sacramento politician — on either side of the aisle — wants to claim responsibility for the ongoing fiscal follies. It’s one thing to kick a problem or two down the street, hoping that the next budget cycle will somehow miraculously take care of the dilemma. That’s how the bulk of last year’s deficits were solved. But as we all have painfully learned, nothing in governmental finances ever seems to get solved these days, and now we may see those deficits kicked so far down the street that they’ll end up in our respective counties. Granted, Sacramento has been shifting more and more of the spending to the counties, all the while increasing its share of the revenues, but the latest rumor of how the Governator plans to stem the flow of red ink hemorrhaging from the state prison system is the most galling yet. You probably haven’t heard the term “3-64” yet, but you will. To translate: 3-64 is governmental shorthand for “a day less than a full tear.” Currently, a criminal convicted for more than a year serves the sentence ensconced inside a state prison. Sentences of less than a year normally are served in county or city jails. But if the state legislature has its way — and it often does — that tried-and-true system will change. According to Placer County Sheriff Ed Bonner, the state is currently looking at changing the parameters of certain felonies. Those specified crimes will come from a new list of what will be called “non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual felonies” and will be punishable by sentences of 364 days, thus sending the miscreant to a county jail instead of a state prison. The term “non-serious” can also be used to describe our current state legislature, but I digress. And, no, Bonner is not a big fan of the proposal. “They’ll kick the grand-theft threshold up to $1,000 (from its current $400 level), so that makes a little sense, but the rest of the proposal doesn’t solve any problems. Instead, it just transfers those problems to us,” he said. The sheriff said some of the other felonies scheduled to be downgraded include auto theft and certain drug-sales convictions. “You can see how this will severely impact our jail,” he said. Another coming problem will be the new way to handle cases involving violations of parole. Currently, such violators are, for want of a better term, fast-tracked back to state prison if convicted on the new violation. At the same time, the counties are supposed to be paid for housing them, but that could all change. “Now such a violation will be treated as a new crime,” Bonner said, explaining that the violator will require a full arraignment, preliminary hearing and specific trial, “and we get to pay all of the costs of housing him in the meantime.” Let’s do the math. Bonner says the county currently sends about 60 people per month to state prison, and many of them are being convicted of crimes that will soon be downgraded. Then add to that figure the costs from the new process for those who violate parole, and we can begin to see the local problem. But, as usual, it gets worse. Just couple all of this nonsense with what may also be coming our way. If the state loses its nearly two-decade prison overcrowding case, every county will immediately be flooded by transfers from the state prison system. Nobody wants to predict how many new convicts will then find their way into the county jail, but an educated guess says that figure will probably be in the hundreds. Placer County supervisors will soon be asked to fund a new jail for the Roseville area. While those 700 additional beds were to be used for a growing local population, transfers from the state system could soon be filling them. Naturally, and all of that will be done with local money. “That’s right,” Bonner said, “none of these proposals have a single dollar of state money attached. All of this will be yet another unfunded mandate form the state.” “No county can absorb something like this,” Bonner lamented, adding, “this all means that there is going to be a fundamental shift in how the state runs the criminal justice system.” And, as usual, the can gets kicked down to our streets.  Jim Ruffalo’s column runs Sundays in the Journal. Reach him at jimruffalo@yahoo.com.