Sheriff Downey Speaks on Jail Overcrowding

Yesterday, July 23rd, Sheriff Mike Downey spoke to the Garberville Rotary Club. He focused his talk on AB109-a bill, he says, that was spearheaded by the Calif. State Sheriff’s Association.  Downey called the new law, which attempts to relieve crowding in the state prison system by moving non violent, non sexual, and non serious offenders to the county jails, the “bane of every sheriff.”  But, he added, it was needed.

“There are a lot of problems with it,” Downey acknowledged.  He noted that the county jails were only designed to hold an inmate one year (though prisoners awaiting trial sometimes are there longer) but now they can hold people for three years or more. Exercise areas, etc., are not designed for long term housing. “We’re not built for that length of confinement,” he explained.

The Humboldt Co. jail has an inmate capacity of 411 residents–55 of which are beds for female prisoners. It averages just over 93% of capacity which is only slightly over the state average.  In the last few years, Downey pointed out,”The female population exploded.” This has made it necessary to release some female arrestee’s without having them make bail.

The number of inmates able to be housed “is deceiving,” Downey said.  The cells are set up in various configurations. Thirty of them are for inmates that have been classified for single cell holds. Sometimes, Downey explained, the jail might have 35 people who need to be in a single cell.  Then, the jail must turn double cells into single cells which reduces capacity even further.

Downey acknowledges that “our crime has increased” in the last few years. However, he notes that only some of this is due to AB109. “Statistically,” he said, “some of the crime increase is AB109 but crime was already on the increase” before the bill was enacted. “AB109 is not most of the problem.  It is a contributing factor but it is not most of it.”

However, AB109 has had an impact on the local jail system in more ways than adding inmates.  Downey explained that a “whole new type of inmate” is now incarcerated at the local level. Those in the penal system, he said, which were moved back into the county system “bring their culture with them.” This, he said, has caused “assaultive behavior” to explode. Violence has gone way up, he said. There is more inmate on inmate and inmate on correctional officer violence. Meanwhile, because of the economic situation, Humboldt has 16 “frozen positions for correctional officer” so there are less officers to deal with more inmates and those inmates may behave more violently.

In addition to the change in the jail culture, Downey explained that AB109 is affecting fire fighting crews because only inmates that require minimum security are used for these duties and those inmates are now housed at county jails. According to the Calif. Dept. of Corrections, “AB 109 and the resulting realignment will result in many inmates being sentenced to county jails instead of state prison. This likely will impact the number of prison fire fighting hand crews run jointly by… CAL FIRE… and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).”

The CDCR suggests that county inmates can be used in fire crews which would relieve county jail crowding as they would be housed in camps instead of the jail. However, Downey says that he has had difficulty in making this happen. He says that there are two fire camps in this area and he has asked to be allowed to take over one of the camps and run it with county inmates.  He has been unable to convince the needed authorities to make the change. He isn’t the only sheriff with this problem. Downey explained, “As of now, only one of 58 counties has a fire camp.”

Downey said that there are plans afoot to increase the amount of inmate beds. A new bill is in the works to deal with constructing buildings [for counties needing more inmate space.] He says that he is applying for $20 million to “build a multistory structure” next to the current jail in the area of the current gravel parking lot.  This building would house two 40 person dorms “for those [prisoners] least likely to be a threat.” The new minimum security building would quite possibly be built over a parking garage so that parking would not be more impacted in the area.

This, however, is a long term solution to the situation. There are some more immediate ways to ease the overcrowding, Downey believes.  Of all California counties, Humboldt spent the largest portion of the funds allocated to it under AB109 (39%) on Day Reporting Centers. Those centers are intended to serve as “hubs of supervision, programming and services for individuals who are being monitored in the community, whether as an alternative to incarceration or after having completed their sentence,” explains the Prison Policy Initiative, an organization that looks at all things involved with the penal system. Prison reform advocates believe this system helps reduce recidivism.

Downey seemed enthusiastic about programs that he said allowed those convicted of crimes to do work projects instead of being incarcerated. He held up programs like SWAP which allow inmates to stay at home and work off their sentences as examples of programs which would be helpful to the community at the same time they relieved the pressure at the county jail.

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Additional tidbits from the question and answer session that followed:

1) The sheriff’s office examined Google Earth from Southern Humboldt to north of Orick (where the photos are indistinct.) Over 4100 separate grow sites were found. These ranged in size from several plants to plantations of plants.

2) The goal is still large commercial grows.

3) The DA has a “whole new unit dealing with environmental issues.”

Note: This article was inadvertantly published before it was finished. A paragraph was added and the story updated at 2:25 P.M.

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