Local Politics

Tuesday, Jan 21 2014 06:18 PM

Kern lobbies for more prison realignment money

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    By Casey Christie/ The Californian

    A correctional officer watches from a guard tower seen through the razor wire near the vehicle sally port that leads into the main prison area of the brand new Kern Valley State Prison in Delano in this 2005 photo.

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BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

Kern County has launched a campaign to grab more prison realignment money as a statewide organization reconsiders the formula for distributing more than $1 billion between the state's counties.

That includes lobbying Central Valley and Inland Empire counties -- and even Gov. Jerry Brown -- to their cause.

Their biggest challenge may be selling Kern County's hard-charging criminal justice system as adaptable and committed to rehabilitating criminals instead of just locking them up.

CASH HUNGRY

This fiscal year, the state gave Kern County $27.8 million to send non-violent, non-sexual and non-serious state prison inmates to sheriff's, probation and mental health programs under Assembly Bill 109.

That's up from $23.5 million last fiscal year, when the money covered about 3,800 offenders.

The additional funding, county officials argue, came because the state budget improved, not because Kern County started getting its fair share of the cash the state has allocated to cover county prisoner costs.

And it's still not enough, Kern County officials say.

Kern received the lowest per-capita portion of that money -- $6,167 per inmate -- in the 2012-2013 fiscal year.

Last year that per-capita payment went up to $13,498 because of growth, according to a county report, but was still the lowest in the state.

The areas that have political power, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, get most of the money, Kuge said.

A portion of the current funding formula allocates cash based primarily on county population -- not the number of prison inmates realigned there.

In other words, big counties get more money.

Kern is hoping to change that.

This summer, a committee of the California State Association of Counties will propose a new formula for dividing state realignment money between the 58 counties.

Kern County Administrative Officer John Nilon said the group developed its initial base funding model under a tight timeline and with a limited amount of information about how realignment would work.

He's willing to cut the group some slack for the call it made. But, he said, Kern County will closely watch what the model looks like this time.

"If you come out the second time with the same allocation model, then you meant it the first time. You meant to underfund us," Nilon said. "And that is unacceptable."

LOBBY PUSH

Not that Kern County is sitting around waiting for the group to come up with a plan on its own.

Last week, Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez wrote a letter to Brown asking for his help in pursuing a new formula for sharing the money.

"While we recognize that counties' criminal justice decisions also contribute to offender caseloads, with increased funding we can change Kern's criminal justice paradigm from incarceration to rehabilitation," she wrote.

Perez, who represents Kern on the CSAC board, said she will also talk to members of the Realignment Allocation Committee -- which will make the funding formula decision.

An analysis of Kern County's realignment needs, attached to Perez's letter, indicates that Kern County needs $13.8 million to continue and enhance mental health, substance abuse and day reporting center funding designed to keep inmates out of prison.

Rehabilitation is the goal of the prison realignment legislation.

But convincing the rest of the state that Kern County is committed to rehabilitating criminals may be hard, said Perez.

"I have real concerns about how Kern County is perceived in this process. We have to do our best to put our best foot forward," she said.

Ultimately, Kern County cannot rehabilitate the state prisoners showing up in its criminal justice system, Perez said, without money to support the "community based organizations" and county programs that help those prisoners get clean, get sober and get jobs.

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