In a quick and heated exchange, two Sacramento County law enforcement leaders flashed anger at each other Thursday. In that instant, they personified the zero-sum debate that has dominated California corrections for more than a decade.
Sheriff Scott Jones had just argued passionately to spend $6 million in inmate "realignment" money coming from the state on additional jail space. With equal intensity, Chief Probation Officer Don Meyer proposed that the county look at alternatives to incarceration, saying inmates shunted home by the state could "safely and scientifically" be controlled outside the confines of jail.
"What if you're wrong?" Jones asked the probation chief, his voice rising at a meeting of county officials about to make a recommendation on how to spend the cash.
"What if you're wrong?" Meyer shot back.
With that, the county's Community Corrections Partnership Committee voted 4-3 to spend $6 million to reopen the 275-bed Roger Bauman Facility at the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center. The money amounts to 46 percent of the $13.1 million in realignment funds Sacramento County will receive under Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to shift lower-level offenders from state prisons to local custody.
The vote sends the matter to the Board of Supervisors for approval on Nov 1. The five-member board will need four votes to overturn the committee's recommendation. If the board rejects the plan, the committee must restart the recommendation process.
Supervisor Phil Serna attended the meeting but gave no indication whether he'll vote to approve the plan or which side he favors in the trade-off between incarceration and its alternatives.
"I want to digest it a little further," Serna said. "I think everyone's looking through the same prism of what's going to be in the best interest of public safety and what's going to be the best use of very limited financial resources."
Thursday's brief but intense discussion crystallized the long history of give-and-take in California between proponents of incarceration and those who champion out-of-jail programs.
On one hand, there are officials such as Meyer aligned with social service providers, criminal defense lawyers, civil-liberty and inmates-rights advocates who say government is spending too much money on jails and prisons at the expense of alternative programs that can achieve the same public safety result.
"It's the old adage if you build it, we'll fill it," said Public Defender Paulino Duran, who joined Meyer in voting against the added jail space. "That's my biggest concern. This was a moment we had to try something new, because we had to. And in my estimation, we're putting it off."
Law enforcement proponents, meanwhile, contend that offenders need to be held accountable by real sanctions, that rehabilitation programs and alternatives to incarceration work only if they are backed up by the threat of jail.
"You need a carrot and a stick," said Sacramento Police Chief Rick Braziel, who sided with Jones in Thursday's vote. "Unfortunately, you can have all the carrot you want, but if you don't have a stick, it doesn't mean anything."
Chief Deputy District Attorney Cindy Besemer and Superior Court Presiding Judge-elect Laurie M. Earl joined Jones and Braziel in voting to reopen the dormant jail wing. Along with the public defender, Countywide Services Agency administrator Bruce Wagstaff backed Meyer's proposal.
Before Thursday's vote, the committee already had approved $1.9 million in realignment spending to monitor 300 inmates a day with electronic devices. It signed off on $4.2 million for day-reporting centers for 1,200 offenders; $555,000 for supervised, own-recognizance releases for 50-75 detainees; and $500,000 more for services and assessments on the inmates who are staying home.
The state's realignment plan was approved this year by the Legislature, partly in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding a federal panel's order to cut the state prison population to 110,000 inmates by June 2013. California's 33 prisons currently hold 144,188 prisoners, or 181 percent of their designed capacity. The state's total inmate population of 159,877 includes convicts housed in fire camps, in out-of-state and private prisons, and in community settings.
Under terms of the realignment, counties as of Oct. 1 had to make room in their own jurisdiction for offenders convicted of crimes deemed by the legislation to be nonserious, nonviolent and nonsexual. Jones said Sacramento County is projected over the next six months to receive 431 such inmates who would otherwise be headed for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
At Thursday's meeting, Meyer and others suggested that the panel hold off on spending the $6 million on the jail wing and direct the money instead into programs such as mental health treatment for parolees returning to the county from state prisons.
"We don't need to reopen (the Roger Bauman Facility) this second," said Fern Laethem of the county's Conflict Criminal Defenders panel. "We can do it next month if we need it."
In an interview, Jones said he has a "dire need" for the 275 slots right away, because the state's projection on the inmate population shift may be too conservative.
"The likelihood of me having to release inmates early, had we not gotten the additional bed space, was very grave," he said, "and I just did not want to do that."