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CA Sheriff: 200 Inmates May Get Early Release Due to Budget Crisis

The Sacramento Bee via YellowBrix

May 12, 2011

MERCED COUNTY, CA – Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said Wednesday he’s proposed the closure of the department’s main jail to meet county budget cuts — a bombshell certain to intensify an already dire $20 million budget crisis.

Further upping the ante, Pazin said the proposal includes the early release of 150 to 200 inmates and laying off up to 20 correctional officers and support staff.

The sheriff’s proposal comes after a request from Merced County Executive Officer Larry Combs to department heads, asking for 20 percent budget cuts to help bridge the county’s $20 million shortfall.

The cuts mean slashing the sheriff’s $40 million budget by about $8 million, Pazin said, adding that he was “forced” to make a proposal he doesn’t embrace or advocate. Without closing the jail, Pazin said the impact and layoffs of sheriff’s personnel would be even worse. “If we were to literally accept what the third floor wanted through the (CEO’s) office, $8 million dollars would have been 80 persons. And that would have just decimated this sheriff’s office,” Pazin said.

In addition, Pazin said his department has already contributed about $2 million to the county’s general fund, from state dollars received through sources such as the In Custody Drug Treatment Program (ICDTP).

ICDTP is a state-funded 90-day program at the county’s other jail, the John Latorraca Correctional Center, that aims to turn inmates with substance-abuse issues into productive citizens. “You talk about being team players, we have,” Pazin said.

The proposal’s fine print remains to be seen, and it’s unknown how it will affect room at the John Latorraca Correctional Center, which holds about 600 inmates (the main jail holds about 150 to 200). Closing the main jail wouldn’t require the approval of either Combs or the board of supervisors, Pazin said. The proposal is on Combs’ desk, but it’s still too early to tell when the layoffs or jail closure could happen.

Pazin said he’s meeting with Presiding Judge Brian McCabe this week to begin determining which inmates would qualify for early release. Pazin clarified that inmates accused of sex offenses or violent crimes wouldn’t be eligible.

Merced County’s situation comes on the heels of Fresno County’s recent budget woes, where the decline in jail staff contributed to the early release of more than 13,000 inmates during the past year. Since last year, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims has reduced expenses by laying off 15 correctional officers. "What’s going on in Fresno, and now maybe Merced, is a microcosm of what’s occurred throughout the entire state,” Pazin said. “All of my counterparts have had to do the same thing, whether it’s Kern County, Stanislaus, Sacramento has just been pummeled, regarding budget cuts and the financial deficit,” Pazin said.

Combs said he couldn’t elaborate about Pazin’s proposal itself, but said the sheriff has been cooperative and did what he was asked to do, in terms of outlining the 20 percent reduction plan. “The bottom line is, we are facing very tough circumstances, and everyone needs to contribute,” Combs said. “As I prepare the proposals for the board, I will make recommendations that I believe are in the best interest of the county. Where I see additional savings by making an adjustment, I will do that.”

Officials with Merced County Sheriff’s Employee Association, which represents correctional officers, said closing the main jail, which houses the county’s most serious offenders, would be a mistake. They say even with the past upgrades to John Latorraca Correctional Center, which was designed for low-risk and mid-level offenders, it doesn’t have the capability to absorb the main jail population. They also said the jail’s operation is mandated by state and federal laws — and failure to abide by those regulations could mean losing millions in state dollars and costly litigation.

“It’s impossible to cut corrections any more than it’s been cut over the years,” said MCSEA Spokesman Jeff Miller. “As it is, at the John Latorraca facility, we have one officer watching a dorm of 150 inmates. That’s why we’ve had the increase in assaults and the aggressive behavior that we’ve had…These guys have nothing to do but watch us and learn. This is the last stop before a lot of these guys go to prison for the rest of their lives. So when do you think they’ll take the opportunity to go free? When there’s the least amount of people, at the worst possible time for us.”

Supervisor Deidre Kelsey said she spoke to Pazin about the proposal, and she’s particularly concerned because many inmates who are released early would ultimately re-offend and end up back behind bars.

Kelsey said she hopes GPS and other tracking technology could be used to help monitor non-violent offenders, if the early releases did happen. “I don’t think it’s the Board of Supervisors’ intent to release dangerous criminals onto the street and turn the jail into a revolving door,” she said.

Combs said the proposed budget will go to the Board of Supervisors on June 28. Final budget hearings will be held around Aug. 23, and it could be approved sometime in September.

Last month, Combs estimated layoffs of more than 150 county employees. Cutbacks in salary and other pay reductions for county employees remain on the table.

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