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Inside Kern County's plan to reduce homelessness by jailing misdemeanor drug offenses

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Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood.

Kern County law enforcement agencies are working to enact a new policy that would lead to stricter punishments for some convicted of low-level crimes.

The policies are meant to address concerns raised by local residents overwhelmed by what they say is a criminal element among Bakersfield’s homeless population with little interest in seeking help.

Sheriff Donny Youngblood and District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer have worked together with local judges to increase jail time for certain misdemeanors, like possession of heroin.

They say the new strategy will reduce crime and provide an opportunity for drug addicts to get treatment away from the temptations of the streets.

“When they’re on the street, they’re lining up to find drugs, not to get into programs,” Youngblood said at a recent Board of Supervisors meeting. “I get phone calls every single day. Our citizens are done, they’re through. They want something done and they want law enforcement to do it.”

But first, Kern County will need to pony up the cash to pay for additional jail beds.

Youngblood said Kern County facilities have about 600 empty beds that could be filled if he had more detention deputies.

The city of Bakersfield has entered negotiations with the county to help pay for deputies to staff about 120 jail cells, which could contain more than one bed each.

City Manager Alan Tandy said at a recent City Council meeting that the expected price for the additional cells is about $1.6 million.

Who pays what is still under negotiation.


Youngblood and Zimmer hope to target criminals who got a break after California voters passed Proposition 47 in 2014.

Under the proposition, possession of drugs like heroin and methamphetamine went from being a felony to being a misdemeanor, along with stealing less than $950 worth of property.

Due to limited jail space, deputies in Kern County typically give out citations for those arrested on suspicion of drug possession or stealing less than $950. But law enforcement officials say those cited seldom show up in court, and the next time they are arrested they simply receive another ticket and give another promise to show up.

It’s a frustrating cycle, according to the DA.

“We’d like to be able to not give someone a ticket who has possession of drugs, a ticket to someone who has vandalized, a ticket for someone with a promise to go to court,” Zimmer said. “Because they don’t go to court. They don’t go to court because they are high and they can’t make these kinds of decisions. They have to go to jail.”

In a comprehensive survey of Kern County’s homeless population conducted in January, 51 percent of respondents reported a substance abuse issue, according to the city.

Under the new policy, those repeatedly arrested for drug possession and theft could be held in jail on no-bail warrants until trial. And if they are found guilty, they could be sentenced up to a year, the maximum allowed by the law.

“You have to have the stick to go along with the carrot for some of these folks,” Supervisor Zack Scrivner said at the meeting.

Both the county and city hope that a stint in jail will prompt some drug addicts to enter the programs that could get them sober.

Before Proposition 47 eliminated Kern County’s substance abuse treatment program, about 2,683 people were granted access in a single year, the District Attorney's Office said in a report.

“We had the ability to help people who had drug problems, and these laws have hobbled us now in law enforcement,” Zimmer said.

Youngblood hopes to bring a plan before the supervisors within a month.

“Those empty beds, it’s not because crime has gone down, it’s because we’re letting them prey on our citizens,” he said. “If we let this grow any more, we’re not going to be able to contain this.”

Sam Morgen can be reached at 661-395-7415. Follow him on Twitter: @smorgenTBC.

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