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Ray Watson

As the state of California shifts thousands of convicted felons back to counties to be supervised, this massive realignment of criminal justice could not have come at a worse time for Kern County, where crime is surging. Robberies are up more than 15 percent, burglaries have jumped nearly 22 percent and auto thefts have increased more than 16 percent in the past year.

Until last year, these crimes would have landed the culprit in state prison. But under a new state law, AB 109, robbery, burglary and auto theft are just a few of the hundreds of felonies, including many drug crimes, that now send a criminal offender to county custody, where they often serve less time than they would in prison.

Under criminal justice realignment, Kern County has seen a huge influx of "nonviolent, nonsexual, nonserious" offenders -- so-called "triple nons" -- who now crowd our jails and strain our capacity to supervise parolees.

Since the new law went into effect a little over a year ago, Kern County has received nearly twice as many state parolees for community supervision as the Department of Corrections predicted. Nearly 5,000 "triple non" parole violators have been sentenced to county jail and probation instead of state prison -- 21/2 times as many as the state Department of Corrections predicted. And once released, more than 36 percent of these offenders have been rearrested for new crimes.

Realignment aims to break the costly cycle of crime that preys upon communities and consumes huge amounts of tax dollars. It's based on the idea that individual counties, with financial help from the state, can do a better and cheaper job of holding offenders accountable and rehabilitating them.

State funding is supposed to help counties to develop Day Reporting Centers, drug treatment, job training and behavioral programs aimed at keeping felons from committing new crimes. But because of the way the funding was allocated, Central Valley counties with persistent high unemployment and higher rates of crime are getting the least help from Sacramento while counties with far less crime are getting the most help.

Many counties outside the San Joaquin Valley get several times more money per AB 109 offender than valley counties. In fact, Kern is dead last at slightly under $6,000 per offender, while San Francisco gets $26,000 and Marin gets nearly $49,000 for each offender -- enough to pay tuition, room and board at a private university!

As a result of this misallocation of funds, our children are more exposed to drugs, and thousands of burglaries, auto thefts and robberies are going unpunished in Kern County because of inadequate state reimbursement. This is irresponsible and unacceptable, and Sacramento must address this before our communities suffer even more unanswered crime sprees.

Kern County's legislators are sympathetic, and we are enlisting them along with Gov. Jerry Brown in an effort to change the way funds are handed out so state resources go to counties where offender populations have exceeded CDCR projections and to counties that are far "under-equity" when it comes to aid per offender.

Counties have watched the state struggle beneath the weight of its massive and costly prison system; we recognize we can't pursue the same model on a local scale. We need to change the criminal justice paradigm if we're going to slow down the treadmill of reoffense and incarceration that is filling up our jails just as it has crowded our state prisons.

But as we try to put treatment programs into place, it isn't fair to send a rising tide of felony offenders back to communities without the money to attack the problems that cause criminals to reoffend. When areas with far fewer offenders get several times as much money per offender as other areas receive, it endangers law-abiding residents and spends precious tax dollars where they are least needed.

We cannot afford to waste our tax dollars, and we cannot afford to allow crime to continue tearing apart the economic and social fabric of counties that came out on the short end of a flawed allocation plan. Criminal justice realignment won't work for counties until it works for every county.

Ray Watson represents the 4th District on the Kern County Board of Supervisors.