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With Realignment, Fresno County Jail Floor Likely to Reopen

Since 2010, the second and third floors the Fresno County Jail in Downtown Fresno have been empty. Budget cuts resulted in the layoffs of around 70 officers who worked in the jail, forcing Sheriff Margaret Mims to close the floors, and begin the early release of prisoners.

"Right now our capacity is at about 2,300 inmates and we run at 100 percent capacity almost all of the time," said Mims.

But just as Fresno County has struggled to deal with the costs of keeping inmates behind bars, the State of California has faced the same issue. In Sacramento, the solution was Assembly Bill 109, otherwise known as realignment, a program which has resulted in the transfer of low-risk offenders from state prisons to county jails.

And now, funding from the state’s realignment program may result in the reopening of another floor of the county’s jail.

"That will give us a little bit more room to hold inmates and in fact it will also help decrease our releases which is an important issue for a lot of people," Mims said.

Last October, Fresno County began receiving inmates from state prisons as part of AB 109, and received funds to reopen the first floor of the jail, which had also been closed.

Since then the first floor of the jail has run out of beds forcing Sheriff Margaret Mims to daily release dozens of low level offenders and the occasional AB 109 criminal.

"It just happened so fast and we got the inmates so fast. We expected 506 over a nine month period and we reached that number in a three month period. So, It just hit us so hard, so fast we were just scrambling all the time to adjust for it."

In response to the bulging numbers in the jail and probation system the seven member Community Corrections Partnership, created in June of 2011 in anticipation of AB 109 legislation to oversee public safety funds, has taken action. The group including Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims, Chief Probation Officer Linda Penner, Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer and others voted last Friday in a public meeting at the Fresno Hall of Records in favor of Mims plan to open the second floor.

The decision to award the department $11 million dollars came after the idea was tabled earlier this month by the CCP due to jail costs and the use of a possible facility in Coalinga. The change of opinion came after a county report showing a decision to house inmates at the Coalinga facility would cost a lot more than the Sheriffs plan.

"We are back on track. This was the plan last year in August. It continues to be a good plan. I am encouraged that we are going to have additional money in reserve for additional programs as we see fit," Mims said.

Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer said he supports the decision, although he still has concerns over who has control over early releases. The county currently holds over 1,500 additional inmates because of realignment.

"I'm very confident in the decision today to open the second floor of the jail in light of the fact that there is an additional $3.1 million dollars that will allow us to explore other alternatives to custody. We are in desperate need of beds in the jail and that is what we did today--we bought ourselves some time," Dyer said.

During the meeting several members of the public argued that simply locking criminals behind bars is not enough, saying that without a better rehabilitation system criminals will re-offend. County Supervisor Susan Anderson agrees with the public.

"I don't disagree that we do need more beds because we have to keep people accountable, but I would like to see this committee also be as interested in expanding the treatment programs as they are in opening more floors of the jail and creating more beds."

Despite complaints from the public, the panel agreed on a $20.8 million dollar plan for the next fiscal year leaving around $2 million dollars for alternatives to incarceration. Most of the funds are slated for the Sheriff's Office and $4.3 million dollars is budgeted for the Probation Department. The rest of the funds are allotted for the District Attorney's Office, other law enforcement and county health departments.

Mims said she has hope for the future because her request was accepted, but she said she knows that any plans made today could disappear in the states budget process.

"I am encouraged that at least this time of year I am not looking for a place to cut several million dollars, because that is historically where we have been. And as we start planning on how we will ramp up, one of my priorities will be to open the last floor of the jail and that's what I will ask the board to do," Mims said.

Mims said if plans go as scheduled the second floor will open sometime in July, pending approval by county supervisors and funding in the next state budget.