Placer embarks on $316,000 justice-system master plan effort

Park City, Utah firm wins two-year contract to research and long-term blueprint
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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With 70 percent of Placer County’s jail inmates incarcerated because they’re awaiting trial rather than serving sentences, David Bennett is asking county officials whether they’re willing to find a better way.

Bennett, who has worked with hundreds of jurisdictions over 40 states on justice system issues over 40 years, has been hired by the county to provide answers to questions facing judges, police and prosecutors in the wake of AB 109 changes.

His David Bennett Consulting emerged from a field of 14 prospective contractors to win a contract worth $316,000 over two years to help guide county leaders toward some crucial decisions on direction.

The so-called Criminal Justice System Master Plan initiative is being conducted in collaboration with the Placer County Superior Court and county public safety officials. It’s intended to develop a shared understanding of the overall functioning of the system and to find ways to improve efficiency and outcomes.

Bennett said that there is no correlation between crime rates and incarceration rates.

“The one thing that we do know is the “Field of Dreams” theory is alive and true – build it and they will come,” Bennett said.

Bennett said that his firm’s work will start with gathering data on prisoners and how long they stay in different parts of the system before being released.

“When you take up 70 percent of the jail population with individuals awaiting trial, we lose the opportunity to have jail-bed space to punish offenders who have been convicted, which really is what a jail is for,” Bennett said.

Bennett’s Park City, Utah is being paid with one-time State Realignment AB-109 planning revenues. He told supervisors at a recent meeting that one of the goals of the master-planning effort is to save the county money and produce better outcomes for inmates and the county.

“What we’ve done is squeezed out the ability to use the jail as a sentencing option because there’s only so much space,” Bennett said.

Donna Lattin, a Bennett colleague who will also be working on the master plan, said a top goal will be to reduce re-offending.

“And stop the repeat recycling of offenders through our system,” Lattin said. “California has a broken system. Almost 70 percent of offenders who exit your prisons are back in prison within three years.”

Cognitive behavior treatment to address negative attitudes and the irrational thought processes behind them is one of the most cost-effective ways for jurisdictions to deal with offenders, she said.

“Programs like Scared Straight and our traditional approach to domestic violence are actually not yielding any good returns,” Lattin said.

Supervisor Jim Holmes expressed hope that the two-year effort will provide the county with a turnaround in recidivism. He said that he attended a session about five years ago with parolees.

“I can never forget the comment by the parole officer,” Holmes said. “He said that a significant number of them would be back in jail in the next year.”

Supervisor Jenifer Montgomery said that she’s looking forward to gaining a better understanding of potential outcomes and requested that Bennett include the possibility of reviving the peer court program.

Job training and job acquisition work also have been shown to have a good return on dollars spent on inmates and individuals in the justice system, Lattin said.

“We also know some things don’t work,” Lattin said. “Simply incarcerating an individual alone doesn’t yield a great return on your dollar. And just providing intensive supervision for people on probation actually increases your costs a bit.”

Over the next year, Bennett Consulting will be gathering data and reviewing the Placer system. Plans are to hold a one-day symposium to go over the data, findings and update the county’s jail population forecast.

After two years, Bennett will have guided the county through the steps to decide on a master plan for the future of criminal justice in Placer, including what core programs to use.