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Santa Cruz County Smart on Crime Initiativie
By mercurynews.com
Published: 05/19/2011

SANTA CRUZ — State prison overcrowding has forced a shift of prisoners and parolees to counties in California, and a group of Santa Cruz County officials and academics hope to use state money to improve the local justice system.

In a community meeting set for Monday in Live Oak, Sheriff Phil Wowak, Probation Chief Scott MacDonald and UC Santa Cruz justice scholar Craig Haney plan to talk to residents about their new bid to be “Smart on Crime.” If Santa Cruz County receives state money in the transition, the group of county leaders said they want to use evidence-based programs to reduce the rate of recidivism rather than add beds to the County Jail system.

Ultimately, they hope to save tax dollars and improve public safety.

“We need to be smart about how we use that money,” Wowak said. “I don’t want to increase (jail) capacity because it doesn’t help the problem.”

The problem — said County Supervisors John Leopold and Neal Coonerty who are also part of the push — is that money has been spent on ineffective justice policies. They are trying to gather public support for changes that would take place across several years.

The first step likely would be to study the inmates in County Jail and find data-driven programs that would address their problems and reduce their chances of returning.

As it stands, seven out of 10 Santa Cruz County Jail inmates return to the jail — which is not unlike other county jails in the state. There are also about 14,000 people annually booked into County Jail. Four thousand of those bookings are for public inebriation, Wowak said.

Expanded drug and alcohol treatment likely would be part of the new programs.

Scott MacDonald, the county probation chief, said he wanted to borrow some of the successful programs that has reduced recidivism at the county’s Juvenile Hall.

That facility has been a model for other detention centers in the nation and has reduced its capacity from about 600 juveniles to about 500 in the past two years.

MacDonald said some basic changes in the adult system could save taxpayer dollars and prevent crime. Arresting probationers for not attending court dates and booking them into jail is a waste of money and resources, MacDonald said. Tracking that expense likely would be part of the new plan.

“We should look at our whole system. I wouldn’t show up to a dentist appointment if you didn’t call me the day before,” MacDonald said. “We’re locking up people we’re mad at, not who broke laws.”

Sheriff Wowak said he expects some push-back from law enforcement officers who understandably want to see their arrestees held accountable in jail or prison.

In a discussion with the Sentinel in March about shifting inmates to County Jails, county Jail Chief Deputy Jeff Marsh said he wanted state money to pay to reopen the Rountree jail farm to house new inmates that would come from state prisons.

The county’s main jail has a rated capacity of 311 inmates and has consistently had 350 or more inmates in recent months.

The main jail cannot run safely and effectively with more than 400 inmates, Marsh said.

In the backdrop of the changes is a federal mandate for California to relieve its overcrowded prisons. Gov. Jerry Brown has said he wants to reserve prisons for nonviolent, nonserious and nonsex offenders. The rest should be housed in county lockups.

If the state gives money to the county, the Board of Supervisors ultimately will decide how it is spent.

Craig Haney of UCSC has testified to federal officials about California prison overcrowding. He said the county has an opportunity to be a leader in jail reform in the state.

“This isn’t a bleeding-heart liberal position. This is a position that speaks to public safety,” Haney said. “Sometimes being smart on crime means being tough on crime. But sometimes it means we can do things a little bit differently.”

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