BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) -- Just over one year since the changes started, law enforcement in Kern County is grappling with the impacts from so-called state prison realignment. The plan puts more state prisoners under local probation supervision and into Kern County jails. Local law enforcement officers say it's the new reality, and they're doing their best with realignment.
"It's probably the worst piece of legislation I've ever seen," Kern Sheriff Donny Youngblood told Eyewitness News. "We were not prepared for this dump of what we got."
The change helps California meet requirements to reduce the number of inmates in state prisons. The goal of the law -- Assembly Bill 109 -- was to reduce prison populations, save tax dollars, and do a better job rehabilitating offenders. Under the law, certain "low level" offenders would now be part of the county systems.
"It's only inmates who are going to serve 120 days or less, primarily," California Corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton told Eyewitness News in early 2011. "It is these lower-level offenders." This involves inmates convicted of non-serious, non-violent and non-sex offense crimes.
The state provided counties with estimates on how many additional inmates they'd see. Kern officials say so far, they're seeing a lot more than those estimates.
"I can tell you that the increase of probationers coming out of court has been quite significant," Kern County Probation Chief David Kuge told Eyewitness News.
"We've seen close to an increase of about 800 more felony probationers than we did at this time last year," Kuge said.
He also points to more inmates under what's called "post release community supervision." He explained that's inmates who get out of state prison at their normal release date, but while they used to be supervised by state parole officers, they are now under the county probation department.
"The state initially gave us an estimate of about 1,040 average daily population," Kuge said. "We have over 1,700 right now." That's 1,700 offenders now out of state prison and getting local supervision.
In several recent murders, Bakersfield Police have identified the suspects as an "AB 109 Probationer."
In mid August, a man was shot to death outside the Super 8 Motel on Wible Road. Police said one suspect arrested is Jose Junior Trejo, 23, and a statement on the incident referred to Trejo as an "AB 109 Probationer." In late September on Panama Street, two men were shot and one died. Bakersfield Police later identified one suspect, Aloysius Asberry, as an "AB 109 Probationer."
Both men are suspects, they have not been convicted in these crimes. Probation Chief Kuge couldn't provide details on these suspects, but he wasn't surprised to see the police reports.
"We are not getting low-level offenders," Kuge said. "We're getting very serious, and dangerous, and violent people back to supervise at the community level."
As for suspects who get classified as "low level," and go into the AB 109 category, Kuge said that's based on the last crime they were convicted of. He suggests that should change. "I believe they should look at their entire record," Kuge said.
Kern's jails are also seeing big impacts from prison realignment.
"Our detention facilities are severely over-crowded now," Sheriff Youngblood said. "We really, really have to look at alternatives to incarceration, and that's hard for us in law enforcement to do."
But, Youngblood is starting up some new alternatives. "I never thought this sheriff would be talking about a 'virtual jail,' which is basically what we do," Youngblood said. The virtual jail is keeping strict tabs on inmates, but they're not behind bars.
The sheriff says nearly 2,900 inmates that would have been in jail beds before realignment, are now in various alternate programs. That's the number of offenders who have been in the sheriff's "virtual jail" since October 2011.
Youngblood says 2,086 inmates have been on work release. An expansion of that program.
And 227 inmates in the "virtual jail" have been in the department's new electronic monitoring program. Also 587 inmates have been on sheriff's parole. It's still a situation the sheriff has concerns about.
"We know some of these people are going to re-offend," Sheriff Youngblood said. "We know that realignment's going to cause more victims, and that really is our biggest concern, is to try and minimize the number of victims."
Already, local law enforcement believes there have certainly been more victims when it comes to property crimes.
"There's no question in my mind that our spike in property crimes is directly related to realignment," Youngblood said. "I think we're up 20 percent increase in property crimes, burglary thefts," he said. "We're going to have more property criminals on the streets."
In Shafter, Police Chief Greg Richardson sees the same trend. "We've had an uptick in property crimes," he said. "It's a heck of a coincidence that this started right when realignment came about."
The city had a Community Correctional Facility which had been filled by state inmates under a contract with the California Corrections department. That jail in now empty, and the city no longer gets revenue or the use of inmate crews. Shafter still hopes to secure a contract with a county, like Los Angeles, to house their additional inmates -- due to realignment.
In the meantime, Chief Richardson's officers have been on sweeps with a special team checking "AB 109'ers." He says almost a quarter of those contacted ended up re-arrested. "Either for some kind of open charge, or for a violation of the terms of their probation," Richardson said.
Probation Chief Kuge isn't surprised. He says a lot of the AB 109 probationers, aren't used to the kind of supervision his office does. "We provide more supervision, unannounced supervision, than what they were receiving," Kuge said. "We're finding more weapons, more drugs, more stolen property."
But with all the additional people to supervise, Kuge's officers are swamped. He said probation officers should each have 50 cases, but now many are assigned twice that number.
Still, Kuge thinks his office is doing a better job than the state did. "I believe we are, I believe we can," Kuge said. "It's not going to help everybody, but I believe we can do a better job than the state has done." He thinks it's important to start services while inmates are in custody, and then follow up with probation once they're out.
That's exactly what Sheriff Youngblood is doing. His department is also providing programs to inmates in jail, including things like drug-diversion and domestic violence.
And there are some encouraging results. "After they've left jail, we're getting a large percent of them that are doing follow up," Youngblood said. "That's a positive indicator to us that we'll have a little bit of an impact."
But, there are new challenges. With the "virtual jail," Eyewitness News discovered some inmates on sheriff's parole who ended up at the Bakersfield Rescue Mission. A Mission spokesman told us, these men don't "fit in" at their facility, and the organization is now working with the sheriff's department on this issue.
Also, if the Kern County jail is getting more inmates from the state, then more people have to be released from jail. Sheriff Youngblood said that means more inmates don't spend their entire sentence behind bars. How much of a sentence are they serving? "We think now somewhere between 20- and 25 percent, depending on what crime you commit," the sheriff said.
The department has a team of deputies who "classify" who will get out, Youngblood said. "They have to weigh all that and decide -- OK, this person gets to get out, because this person's coming in," Youngblood said. That's another new challenge.
But, the sheriff also trying to provide more space to keep inmates in jail. Youngblood said they've added 222 beds at Lerdo, and they plan to build a new 800-bed jail with $100 million in state funds.
But, Youngblood and the probation chief see more real challenges ahead. They worry about more crime.
"When you have people who are getting out of jail early, and committing crimes -- specifically property crimes -- it has to increase," the sheriff said. "Seventy percent of them are going to re-offend," he predicts. "They may re-offend 20 or 30 times before they're caught."
"There has been a increase, more theft-related offenses," the Probation Chief David Kuge says. "They know they're not going to spend much time in custody." He urges the public to take precautions. "We're doing everything we can to keep them safe," Kuge vowed. "The violent crimes, the sexual crimes have gone down -- but property-thefts have sky-rocketed."
The probation chief also says the rate of re-offending might look better right now, but that's not the whole picture.
"Our recidivism rate is very deceptive right now, because it's about 22 percent," Kuge said. "It will start to climb, and I think we'll get a very high recidivism rate at the beginning," Kuge continued. "But we think once we start developing programs in the community, and as people start going into these programs, we'll see it decline slowly after that."
But, he has immediate concerns. "We can do a better job, as long as the funding is maintained," Kuge said. He thinks there must be a better formula for how areas like the Central Valley get state realignment money. "That's my biggest fear, is that someday the funding will go away."
Youngblood is convinced that realignment is one thing that won't go away. "I think we're doing the best that we can right now, with what we're faced with," the sheriff said. "Do I think we can handle these programs with inmates better? Certainly, I think locally we can do that better."
The sheriff said his department will add more jail beds and keep catching the bad guys -- and they'll deal with the impacts of prison realignment. "This is really a little experiment for all of us, including the public."