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Jail Overcrowding -- What's the Answer?

“There is no need to put everyone who breaks the law in jail. We have to incarcerate the right people." Napa Police Chief Rich Melton.

Napa city and county law enforcement officials continue to wrestle with the problem of overcrowding at the downtown.

The current jail has a capacity of 264 inmates, but sometimes holds close to 300; the population fluctuates daily as some inmates are released or transferred and others are booked.

Napa County Department of Corrections director Lenard Vare said a lot of the overcrowding is due to external factors.

“The jail has no control over how many people are housed here,” Vare said.

“The population is controlled by the number of arrests made, the court sentencing and state transportation of jail inmates waiting to be transferred to prison,” he said. “We can’t control any of those factors.”

Rich Melton said jail overcrowding most likely will always pose a problem, no matter how many jail beds there are.

“Whatever we build, we will fill it,” Melton told the during an Aug. 9 board meeting, discussing jail expansion.

The downtown lockup could soon see an influx of new prisoners, thanks to a new state law allowing those convicted of non-violent, non-sexual crimes to serve their time in the county jail, rather than at a more costly state prison.

It costs the state about $128,000 a year to house each prisoner, as opposed to about $77,000 annually to house a county jail inmate, though medical care can drive costs higher.

“We have an impending crisis,” Melton said.

However, Melton stopped short of supporting a recommendation to expand the jail to more than 500 beds.

“I question the need,” he told the supervisors, citing a bulge in Napa’s jail bookings earlier in the 2000s:

“What happened? We didn’t add more beds. We changed our policies,” Melton said: That’s when the county created the criminal justice committee to attack the problem of jail overcrowding.

Napa County now offers alternatives to jail including citing and releasing non-violent offenders, home detention and offering more and better off-site rehabilitation programs.

“Those who are enrolled in a rehab program and diligently work at it have about a 70 percent success rate of getting employed when they are released,” Melton said.

To keep offenders from returning to jail, “we need to provide correctional services to inmates including job skills, parenting and alcohol and drug abuse counseling,” he said.  “Eighty-five percent of our jail inmates are in there because of alcohol or drug abuse.”

There is no need to put everyone who breaks the law in jail, Melton said: “We have to incarcerate the right people.”

Vare agreed some inmates do not need to serve their time in jail.

“There is electronic monitoring, probation supervision which places inmates in a adult probation supervised day program,” he said.

“Jail crowding becomes a problem when it is not managed. Law enforcement understands this problem  and is working to help reduce it, ” Vare said. “We get an enormous amount of cooperation from the police and sheriff’s departments to make sure the right people are put in jail.”

Whether to cite and release an offender, instead of making an arrest, is “a judgement call for the officer,” Melton said.

“We also have to take into account if a crime is being committed or a violation of probation.”

When a person is cited and released, he or she is given a citation to appear in court on a certain date. If somebody doesn’t show up as cited, an arrest warrant is issued.

Vare said it’s too soon to know the effect on Napa’s jail of the new state realignment bill.

The law will not return any prisoners to the counties who were committed before the bill was signed. Those prisoners will remain in state prison to finish out their sentences or until they are paroled.

The bill only applies to those sentenced to prison for up to three years. It also excludes those convicted of violent crimes, serious crimes and sex crimes.

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