Kern prosecutors: Prison realignment led to big crime jump

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) - The Kern County District Attorney's office provided evidence Tuesday of increased crime, and they say it's the result of the controversial prison realignment plan.

The office says the number of felony cases they filed jumped by more than 1,000 after the change went into effect. They say prison realignment is the reason.

"The only change that has been in the criminal justice system in the past couple years has been realignment," Chief Deputy D.A. Mark Pafford told Eyewitness News. He's convinced by the timing that there is a direct link.

Assembly Bill 109 went into effect in October 2011, transferring tens of thousands of inmates from the state's overcrowded prisons into county jails. The ripple effect was thousands of criminals getting early prison releases and thousands more never being sent to prison in the first place, the district attorney's office said.

AB 109 appears responsible for at least a 15 percent increase in crime in Kern County, the prosecutor's office said. An additional 1,057 felony criminal cases were filed last year in Kern County court compared to 2011.

Metro Bakersfield saw a 22 percent increase in felony court filings in 2012.

"We think it's important that the public knows that, unfortunately, crime is on the rise here," Pafford said.

During a quick check with residents, Eyewitness heard the same concern.

"We've had a few people that had houses broken into," Al Leal told Eyewitness News. "I don't know if that's directly because of realignment of the prisons, but it does seem like it's gone up a little bit."

Linda Freeman said her neighborhood in northeast Bakersfield still seems quiet, but she worries about other nearby areas where she thinks there's more crime. "I see it more in the northeast around the main apartment dwellings," Freeman said. "And a lot of it, I think, is because of a lot more prisoners out because of this new law that gave us more prisoners out on the street."

Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood says his officers report an uptick in serious crime.

"There's certainly no question that robberies, burglaries, grand theft auto -- these have gone up substantially," Youngblood said. "And, it's the type of people that's being released."

Under realignment more inmates are now kept at the county level, in jail or sheriff's supervision. The jail doesn't have enough space, so many inmates get released early. Youngblood said inmates probably serve 25- to 30-percent of their sentence now.

He says it's a situation that leads to more crime.

"It's just really not rocket science that if we're going to release people who have a 70 percent recidivism rate, we should expect the crime rate to go up," Youngblood said. "We're getting exactly what we thought we'd get."

The Sheriff's department is working to build a new jail, and they're gearing up programs for what Youngblood calls a "virtual jail," to keep tabs on inmates who aren't behind bars.

"Since realignment, we've had 4,120 people in a virtual jail that would have filled jail beds," the sheriff said. He says that includes work release, electronic monitoring and sheriff's parole.

He adds it's a tough problem, with lots of layers. "We have about 33 percent of our inmate population with mental health issues," Youngblood said, adding the new jail will have specific beds for mental health and medical care.

Bakersfield Police Chief Greg Williamson is also seeing changes since realignment went into effect. "It's made the criminal justice system at the local level more complex," Williamson told Eyewitness News. His department is also seeing an increase of about 20 percent in serious crimes.

Under realignment, only inmates convicted of non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual crimes are supposed to now be housed or supervised at the local level.

Pafford says that's according to the law. "It doesn't mean that these people are not committing crimes that affect you, and me, and every other person in Kern County," he said.

Pafford and the sheriff say things won't go back like it was before.

"Realignment started from a lawsuit by prisoners for lacking medical and mental health care," Youngblood said. "The inmates won, but then the United States Supreme Court came right behind them and ordered the state to release prisoners."

"I wish I could tell people to contact their state legislators," Pafford said. He'd like to ask them why they won't handle these inmates again. Pafford also wants to know what the real costs are.

"They say we're saving so much money at the state level," he said. "How much money is this costing the citizens of Kern County by the extra property crimes? The extra property that they're losing?"

Both Youngblood and Pafford say realignment is the cause of the increase in serious crime, and citizens have to take action to protect themselves and their property.

"Be vigilant, do anything you can to not be a victim," Pafford concluded. "Because I don't think we're going to get the state legislature to go back on realignment any time soon."