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Shift Happens

news2The woman behind Santa Cruz County’s lauded maneuvering of prison realignment

Santa Cruz County, and its longtime chief administrative officer Susan Mauriello, in particular, has received statewide recognition for its effective response to state-mandated requirements for prison realignment. Last year, Mauriello spent a good deal of time in Sacramento explaining to CAOs, sheriffs and chief probation officers from other counties how Santa Cruz County has managed to reduce county incarceration rates, save tax dollars and improve public safety in the process. They’ve looked to her for advice on how they, too, can meet the challenges of the new state law, AB 109, also known as the “Public Safety Realignment Act.”  

Referred to as a “sea change” in criminal justice reform at the state level, AB 109 was passed last year largely as a result of a Supreme Court order to reduce overcrowding in the California state prison system. The Realignment Act requires counties throughout the state to shoulder this burden by transferring custody of local, low-level offenders, who would otherwise do their time in state prison, to county jails. The law also adds significant responsibilities to county probation departments, mandating that the revolving door of repeat offenders cycling in and out of state prisons on parole violations at least be slowed down.

In September 2011, after serving on a special executive committee of the California State Association of Counties (which was charged with working out a funding formula that reimburses counties for the additional expense of the new law), Mauriello was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown to serve on the Corrections Standards Authority, a commission overseeing prison policies statewide. On Sunday, Feb. 12, at a presentation for the Santa Cruz League of Women Voters “Valentine Luncheon,” Mauriello discussed Santa Cruz’s response to the new law, including local measures to reduce incarceration and strengthening community-based programs that have proven to reduce  probation violations.    

“We don’t have a choice,” Mauriello said. ”Either we focus on alternatives to incarceration and restorative justice programs, or we spend a lot more money locking people up. Given the competing priorities for funding, taxpayers have been pretty clear they don’t want to continue funding state prisons at current levels.”   

About 100 additional prisoners will be housed in local county jails each year as a result of realignment, Mauriello explained. These will be so-called “triple non” offenders, sentenced for non-violent, non-serious, or non-sex related crimes.  To accommodate these additional prisoners, the Santa Cruz Sheriff’s Office conducted a thorough review of incarceration practices last year, and borrowed from past experience of the county’s Probation Department in reducing overcrowding in juvenile hall beginning in the late-1990s.  

Chief Probation Officer Scott MacDonald is proud of the fact that Santa Cruz County, based on demonstrated success, was the first “replication site” for continued funding by the Annie E. Casey Foundation for the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI). Using a combination of improved screening aimed at detaining only high-risk offenders and community-based programs helping offenders meet probation requirements and stay out of jail, admissions to juvenile hall decreased by 52 percent between 1996 and 2009.    

“Previous policies of mandatory jail time for non-criminal, technical violation of probation were driven by failed, fear-based policies that didn’t necessarily fit the offender, rather than evidenced-based policies that have been shown to work,” MacDonald tells GT. “Fortunately for us, we have a local political culture, and organizational cultures within law enforcement agencies and probation, that are willing to embrace change.”

Transferring more than 10 years of experience with JDAI to adult prisoners gave Santa Cruz County a running start at meeting the requirements of the Realignment Act. Prior to October 2011, when AB 109 went into effect, county jails were running at about 125 percent of capacity, according to Jim Hart, the Sheriff’s Office chief deputy of corrections. With the additional prisoners required by the law, and without changes to pre-sentencing and alternatives to custody, it was projected the jails would be running at 200 percent of capacity within two years. “Changes needed to be made, relatively fast,” says Hart.  

After careful review of the charges, background and sentences of the inmate population, Hart said they found 25 percent of the inmates were doing time for relatively minor misdemeanors. Using a “state-of-the-art” risk assessment tool, more inmates were let out for work release and electronic monitoring programs, reducing the inmate population by 20 percent since June 2011.

“I’m not a politician,” Mauriello stressed at the luncheon. “One of my main responsibilities is watching where the money goes.” Mauriello has done this for more than 20 years as the county’s CAO, where she is responsible for preparing and implementing the county’s budget. “The least we can do is to stop spending money on incarceration when, in many cases, it’s been shown to do more harm than good.”

Mauriello defers the recognition she has received to her bosses on the Board of Supervisors. “You don’t get to do this work without a lot of people behind you,” Mauriello says. “Several members of the Board of Supervisors have championed these issues of justice reform with a priority on public safety, and they’re the ones who have to answer to voters.”  Photo: Patrick Dwire

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