AB 109 an increasing challenge for Placer jail, crime suppression

More bodies, more gang activity, in lockup
By: Scott Thomas Anderson, The Press Tribune
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With California’s embattled “criminal realignment” plan having been in effect for a year, a new independent study is beginning to question whether it’s accomplishing one of its most basic and primary goals — reducing state prison overcrowding.

Meanwhile, Placer County law enforcement officials are voicing myriad concerns, ranging from an escalating prison culture inside the county jail to the possibility of rising crime rates.    

Impacts matched by gains?

On Friday, Sept. 27, The Public Policy Institute of California revealed new findings on Assembly Bill 109, better known as the state’s “criminal realignment” program. The institute is a nonpartisan group that researches California’s state and local relationships. AB 109 has been at the center of a controversy over state and local authorities due to its channeling of thousands of convicts to county jails rather than state prisons. The institute’s study of AB 109 was conducted by Dr. Magnus Lofstrom, who began his presentation by pointing out that most county jails were already facing serious problems with overcrowding before the would-be state prison inmates were transferred to them.

“One thing we found was that many of the county jails already faced significant capacity issues,” Lofstrom said. “Seventeen counties were already operating under court orders limiting how many inmates could be held in their local jails … Another finding was that 93 percent of all county jails were already operating at their full capacity, prior realignment.”  

Another finding of Lofstrom’s probe is that the decline of state prison populations due to AB 109 may have permanently leveled off, even as county jail populations continue to grow. In May 2011, the United States Supreme Court upheld a decision that state prison overcrowding in California had reached dangerous and degrading levels, violating the constitutional rights of inmates. The high court ordered the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to lower its prison population by more than one-third. The realignment plan has been billed as a way to comply with that order while saving the state’s general fund large sums of money. Lofstrom’s findings question to what extent AB 109 will meet those goals.

“Since realignment went into effect, the increase in county jail populations is not being matched by the decline of inmates in the state prison system,” Lofstrom said. “When the law went into effect the state prison population declined by 12,000 inmates in the first three months. However, in the last three months, the overall decrease from previous levels has almost flat-lined.”

A changing Placer Jail

The Placer County Jail has experienced a documented rise in prisoners since AB 109 was enacted. Placer County Sheriff’s Captain George Malim said the daily population of the jail has gone from 523 inmates on any given day, in 2010, to the current level of 580. He added that the jail has also experienced a number of weeks and months where the average daily population was 600 prisoners. The main jail facility is rated for a maximum of 480 inmates. Placer County also has a nearby minimum security jail rated for no more than 160 inmates.

One direct consequence of the influx of bodies in the Placer Jail is that Sheriff’s officials are being forced to release various types of suspects who are awaiting trial, according to how they rate on a threat index. Malim said such post-AB 109 releases do present risks to public safety.

“I think one of the best examples can be seen in the fact that we’ve had to release first-time drunk drivers,” Malim said. “That’s significant because drunk driving is one of the biggest threats to public safety in Placer County. We have far more people killed by DUIs than we do straight murder cases. In the past, we’d rather have kept those drunk driving suspects in custody and off our roads; but AB 109 forces you to make really tough decisions.”

The development of bringing hardened and experienced state prison inmates to the Placer County Jail also appears to have created a more dangerous county jail environment for both prisoners and county correctional officers. 

“Prior to AB 109, we had the so-called ‘prison culture’ in some of our holding pods; but now we’ve seen the prison culture spread throughout the whole jail,” Malim said. “There’s some anecdotal evidence of inmates starting to separate by gangs and race, and that active gang recruitment is going on — everything from white supremacist groups to known gangs like the Nortenos. There’s also been an increase of fights inside the facility.”

Effects on crime

Though initially endorsed by the California State Sheriff’s Association, AB 109 has seen little to no support from the state’s district attorney association and the police chiefs association. Last week, Scott Seaman, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, re-emphasized that by reminding the media, “Police chiefs up and down the state continue to have concerns about Realignment’s short- and long-term impacts.”Placer County’s largest municipal police department, Roseville PD, shares those concerns. Roseville police sergeant Doug Blake is a member of the agency’s crime suppression team. From Blake’s perspective, one factor around AB 109 that could influence local crime rates involves all of the state’s 58 counties having varying methods and policies for tracking “county prison inmates” that have been released, or are on alternative sentencing or ankle-bracelets. 

“I think the Sheriff’s department, the police and the county probation department in Placer have all come together to create a good system for monitoring these offenders who are out in the public,” Blake said. “But the fact remains that we have no control over what other counties in the region choose to do. If they don’t find effective ways to monitor their offenders, then I think Roseville and the rest of Placer will feel it. Criminals don’t observe jurisdictional boundaries, and a lot of Roseville’s crime already comes from individuals that live in surrounding counties.”

An alleged example of Blake’s assessment is the case of Michael Ramborger, 45, of Sacramento. Ramborger, a convicted criminal who was released from incarceration under AB109, is now suspected of being a significant methamphetamine dealer in Roseville. When Roseville narcotics detectives arrested him at his Sacramento home, they reportedly found meth packaged for sale and a loaded handgun with its serial number removed.

Roseville police spokeswoman Dee Dee Gunther said Ramborger was a reminder that criminals labeled “non-violent” under AB 109’s classification system can still be dangerous.

“Right now, he’s classified as a non-violent offender,” she said of Ramborger, “but he had a loaded gun with him that had been filed down to make it untraceable.”