Janell Schindler soon may be getting 50 new neighbors: federal parolees with criminal backgrounds ranging from drug trafficking to bank robbery.
Plans to turn a run-down apartment building on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard into a halfway house for federal parolees has set her south Sacramento neighborhood on edge. The neighborhood, featured in a recent Bee story about gun violence, already has some of the worst crime rates in Sacramento County.
Schindler and others will make a case against the federal "residential re-entry center" on Monday before the Sacramento County Planning Commission. They will argue that the facility is a bad fit for a neighborhood saturated with guns and plagued by gang warfare and drug activity.
Roughly bounded by Highway 99, Franklin Avenue, 47th Avenue and 41st Avenue, the west Lemon Hill neighborhood has the highest rate of gun crimes of any similarly sized section of the county. The proposed federal halfway house would operate in the heart of the neighborhood.
"It's not OK for us to be a dumping ground," said Schindler, who leads a neighborhood watch group in the area. Residents are concerned that parolees could contribute to crime in south Sacramento, and that the project could cause a drop in property values.
The Planning Commission's staff has recommended approval of the center, which would be funded by the federal Bureau of Prisons and help felons find jobs, manage anger and stress, and be better parents, among other things, before they are released into the community.
For decades, the Bureau of Prisons has contracted with such centers to temporarily house and provide services to inmates. About 280 of them operate across the country, including 11 in California. The south Sacramento center would be the only one in the county, although one such facility briefly operated on Auburn Boulevard about five years ago.
The state licenses substance-abuse treatment centers for "a couple of hundred" inmates at any given time in Sacramento County, but most of those facilities are not residential, said California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Bill Sessa. He said none of them is in the vicinity of the proposed south Sacramento facility.
The company that has applied to operate the center, Behavioral Systems Southwest, runs eight similar programs in California and Arizona and has submitted letters of support to county planners from residents and business leaders who live and work around the facilities. The Sacramento County's Sheriff's Department has given its support to the project, saying it found no increase in crime in areas where the facilities operate.
Behavioral Systems Southwest has said the center would be surrounded by an iron fence and have security around the clock. Staffers would monitor the movements of felons, who would live at the center an average of three months, the company said.
"If they run the facility like they've run the other ones and do the things they've promised, I don't anticipate any issues with it," said Capt. Tracy Petrie, commander of the Sheriff's Department's central division.
The county's principal planner, Tricia Stevens, pointed out that the apartment complex that the center would replace is a crime magnet. The federal facility might actually improve the neighborhood, she said.
"We feel it would be compatible with the area, not worsen crime and might help curb it, and lessen loitering and illegal dumping," Stevens said. "I can't promise it would make everything better, but we don't think it would make anything worse."
Schindler and her neighbors are unconvinced.
They argue that south Sacramento has more than its share of facilities for society's disenfranchised. In 2009, a housing complex for disabled homeless people opened just a few blocks from the proposed federal halfway house.
Kevin Boyer, who has lived in the neighborhood for 30 years, said crime is a way of life on his street. Stolen cars, break-ins, drug transactions, random gunshots and home invasions are "nothing out of the ordinary," he said.
As the county has cut law enforcement coverage in the area in recent years, Boyer said, crime has spiked. He is bracing for things to get worse if the federal project goes forward.
"Rotating as many as 150 parolees a year through this type of area is a huge concern for us," Boyer said. "I understand that criminals can change their ways, but that number of felons coming through here cannot be a good thing, especially in a community like this one."
Marti Brown, executive director of the North Franklin District Business Association, said the project would be yet another economic blow to a community suffering from falling sales tax revenues, high foreclosure rates and vast social problems.
It would "send a clear message that this community is a sacrifice zone," she said in a November letter to the South Sacramento Community Planning Advisory Council.
The proposed project is just the latest chapter in a long history of "bad planning and neglect" in south Sacramento, said sociologist Jesus Hernandez, a UC Davis lecturer who studies housing issues.
"At the heart of the issue is a neighborhood that has been left behind for 50 years," in terms of public transportation, decent housing and access to grocery stores and other businesses that make communities more livable, Hernandez said.
Midge Chapin, a member of the advisory council that last month gave the center the go-ahead, said she has mixed feelings. Chapin said she abstained from voting because she has a son in law enforcement who influenced her opinion.
"I think it's an excellent program," said Chapin, a retired office manager who grew up in south Sacramento. "But the people who live in that neighborhood have enough problems. I think it should be in a different location, in a light industrial tract area. I certainly wouldn't want it in my backyard."
Initially, the advisory council rejected the project because of its size and potential impact on the neighborhood. But last month, after Behavioral Systems Southwest agreed to concessions including downsizing from 70 beds to 50 and banning sex offenders, the panel approved it 3-1.
The project will move forward if the Planning Commission gives its approval Monday, unless someone files an appeal with the county within 10 days of the panel's vote.
Chapin is betting that felons will be moving in soon.
"The property already has been purchased, improvements are being made, and time and money have been invested," she said. "To me, it seems almost like a done deal."
The Sacramento County Planning Commission will discuss the proposed federal halfway house at 5:30 p.m. Monday in the county administration building at 700 H St., Room 1450.