SAN FRANCISCO -- Tens of thousands of convicted felons and parole violators in California will be diverted from state prison to county supervision by late 2012, sending local criminal justice officials scrambling to meet added demands on their jails, probation offices, courts and social services -- all without assurance of adequate funding.
Law enforcement authorities anticipate a jump in crime with fewer criminals locked up in state prisons. They worry about more trouble behind bars in the county lockups.
"I think people should be concerned, but I don't think they should panic," said San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey.
San Francisco Bay Area sheriffs estimate the inmate population in San Francisco could balloon by about 42 percent. Estimates for other parts of the state vary.
Not every transferred offender will end up behind bars. Some will move to electronically monitored home detention, probation, supervised work crews or in other alternatives to incarceration.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in May that the state must drastically cut its prison population over the next two years. The state's new policy, pushed by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and approved by the Legislature, helped close the state's $26 billion budget deficit. It will be used to decrease unhealthy and dangerous overcrowding.
The change is intended to reduce California's high recidivism rate by placing more emphasis on crime prevention and rehabilitation through services and programs at the local level.
The target population will be newly sentenced lower-level offenders -- those convicted of nonviolent and nonsexual violations, such as property theft, drunken driving and minor drug offenses -- and new parole violators who aren't on parole for serious crimes.
Once the program is in full swing, California counties are expected to handle 30,000 to 40,000 additional offenders at any given time.
"Cycling these offenders through state prisons wastes money, aggravates crowded conditions, thwarts rehabilitation and impedes local law enforcement supervision," Brown said.
Each of the state's 58 counties must craft a realignment strategy. A well-designed system will tailor case-management plans for each offender and assess the risk of reoffending, said Wendy Still, San Francisco's chief adult probation officer.
But with limited resources, Still said, "tough choices are going to have to be made."
Ideally, offenders who end up in county care will receive support services, such as drug treatment, violence-prevention programs, family counseling, job training and high school classes for those who never graduated.
California set aside about $5 billion to help counties handle their added responsibilities. The initiatives will save the state about $1 billion in the current fiscal year's nine remaining months.
The funding is supposed to pay not only for more jail beds, but also for more probation officers, court staff, attorneys and support services.
"The concept ... provides a lot of opportunity," said San Mateo County Sheriff Greg Munks. "Instead of warehousing these inmates in mega-complexes far from home, we can have them closer to their families and to the organizations that can help them."
But the $5.5 million the state will provide his county under the new program "doesn't even begin to cover the costs," Munks added. His jails, built for 834 inmates, now house 1,000. He expects about 400 more after the realignment.
Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said there would be money to pay for realignment. But "whether it's going to be enough is a matter of opinion," she added.
Hennessey, the San Francisco sheriff, has championed alternatives to incarceration and in-custody support services during his 31 years on the job. But has serious concerns about the realignment.
He anticipates his jail population will expand from 1,550 today to 2,200 by late 2012. The $5.5 million allotment from the state for San Francisco will fall short, he said: "There are going to be management challenges and funding challenges."
Munks predicted another troubling consequence by changing where repeat offenders -- who make up a majority of the state prison population -- serve their time. Many are likely to be in home detention or supervised probation rather than in state prison.
"There's going to be an increase in crime; there's no way around it," he said. But "when we get through the transition, we should have more positive outcomes."
(Email Rachel Gordon at email@example.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)