Local News

Monday, Aug 29 2011 05:08 PM

Local agencies lining up for prison realignment money

BY JAMES BURGER, Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

County law enforcement agencies are struggling to figure out how to handle, with limited money and less time, the future shift of what once would have been state prisoners and parolees to Kern County jails and streets.

Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood will ask the Kern County Board of Supervisors Tuesday to let him spend $5.2 million to hire 33 new deputies, fix up three aging barracks buildings at Lerdo Jail, put more bunks into Lerdo's pre-trial cells and kick off in-home monitoring, day reporting and fire camp programs.

Requests to the board from the Kern County Probation Department, Mental Health Department, Kern Medical Center and Department of Human Services are expected to follow.

They're vying for some $10.8 million expected to come Kern County's way from the state for realignment this year.

Kern County supervisors aren't technically scheduled to divide up that cash until late September. And, when they do, there won't be enough for everyone.

Kern County Chief Probation Officer David Kuge, chair of the Community Corrections Partnership's executive committee, said the group of law enforcement officials has requests from its members for twice the $10.8 million on the table. The committee will draft a plan by Sept. 15 and then forward it to supervisors for a final decision.

Kuge said he's asked for $6 million to handle a wave of additional probationers who, under realignment, will be handled by his officers rather than state parole staff.

So why are county departments asking to hire new staff and start new programs if they aren't guaranteed or even likely to get everything they ask for?

Undersheriff RoseMary Wahl said the sheriff can't wait to start the process of hiring people, fixing buildings and ordering new equipment.

After Oct. 1, all non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual offenders convicted in Kern County who would normally have been committed to state prison will, instead, be sent to Kern County jails.

Some 1,000 new inmates are expected to land in county jail during the first year of realignment, according to sheriff's estimates.

"We need to get the hiring process started. It takes two months," Wahl said.

In addition to the hiring, sheriff's officials plan to add 112 bunks in cells at Lerdo pre-trial, open three aging barracks at Lerdo to hold 126 more inmates and order electronic monitoring equipment, Wahl said.

If supervisors don't give the Sheriff's Department all the money it has requested, she said, the department can scale back its plans in September.

But it is critical, she said, to move forward now.

Later, if the requested money comes in, the sheriff will try to build a day-reporting program for some offenders and team up with the Kern County Fire Department to create a "fire camp" program that would train low-risk inmates as wildland firefighters.

Kern County Fire Chief Nick Dunn said since Cal Fire is terminating its inmate crews, it is important to find some way to keep that resource alive.

The work done by Inmate crews to clear brush and cut firelines before a blaze starts was critical to controlling the recent Bull and West fires in Kern.

"When we have significant fires here that go two or three days, we have Cal Fire" crews on them, he said.

The hope is that the Sheriff's and Fire departments can train between 70 and 144 inmates to work on fire crews.

But, Dunn said, "I can't commit people to it without funding for it."

Kern Medical Center, which treats all Kern County inmates, is also bracing for realignment -- and looking for some additional funding.

Jacey Cooper, special projects manager at KMC, said the hospital gets reimbursed for about half the cost when an inmate is admitted to the hospital -- through Kern Medical Center Health Plan, a low-income medical insurance program.

But the insurance doesn't pay for outpatient care -- which makes up two-thirds of KMC's inmate medical costs.

More inmates, Cooper said, mean more costs.

Kuge said his already overloaded department has already had to decide to put 4,200 of its more than 7,000 adult felony probationers on unsupervised release.

To keep up with the new probationers that will hit his system as realignment inmates are released, Kuge said, he needs to hire 44 new probation officers at a cost of $6 million.

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