Jail pink slips should send up a public safety S.O.S
February 14, 2010
By JOE CORTEZ
San Luis Obispo Sheriff Pat Hedges recently had the unfortunate task of notifying 11 valued employees that they may soon be out of a job due to potential budget cuts in the upcoming fiscal year. The loss of even one job in an economy such as this is troubling, but the repercussions of these particular cuts may have a far-reaching, long lasting and costly effect on the health and safety of our communities.
The 11 employees that may be laid off all happen to work in the county jail; 10 are correctional officers, and one is a jail technician. These potential job losses are due to a deficit in the sheriff’s budget that may be as high as $2 million in the coming year. Should these cuts occur, it will leave Sheriff Hedges with little choice but to close an inmate housing unit due to a lack of available correctional staff.
A jail housing unit typically contains 50 to 60 beds, meaning the cuts would translate into 50 to 60 inmates being released before they’ve fully paid their debt to society. Some people may argue that it is only low risk inmates who will be released, but the reality is that with all the various programs in place to divert convicted offenders away from incarceration there are fewer and fewer “low risk” inmates behind bars.
Consider that a substantial number of convictions in our courts occur as a result of plea bargains, dismissal of a felony charge upon a guilty plea to a misdemeanor such as a burglary charge being reduced to trespassing. As a result, the sentences being served by inmates often bear little semblance to the severity of the original crime. It is entirely possible for inmates with violent histories to be released early only because their current sentence was considered low risk. Take for example the case of Alberto Alvarez who was recently convicted of murdering former Lompoc Police Officer Richard May. It just so happens that when Alvarez murdered officer May he was on the streets after being released early from prison for marijuana for sale, a non violent, low-level offense.
Previous cuts to the sheriff’s budget have primarily resulted in cutbacks to patrol staffing. Reduced patrols have been felt by residents living in our unincorporated communities and the outlying areas. The new cuts and resultant early release of 50 to 60 inmates will have a cost that will be borne by us all whether we live in cities or unincorporated towns. These inmates, many of whom are undereducated and short on job skills, are being released into a hard-hit economy where even college grads are having difficulty finding meaningful work. Add in California’s notoriously high recidivism rate and it seems like a sure recipe for increased crime victimization in our communities. These cuts are in addition to state budget cuts resulting in thousands of additional state prison inmates set for early release.
Former President Bill Clinton said, “Law and order is the first responsibility of government.” With tourism being our number one industry at over $1 billion per year, it is imperative that we maintain safe and healthy communities to attract tourists, create local jobs and maintain a quality of life we all can enjoy.
I have no doubt Sheriff Hedges will be a strong and effective advocate for additional funding to maintain necessary jail staffing. Our county supervisors have a long history of supporting public safety, and I ask that you join me in contacting your local supervisor to ensure safe communities are their number one priority during the upcoming budget preparations.
Joe Cortez is the former Chief of Police for the City of Pismo Beach, and a 30-year law enforcement veteran who has served 15 years as a chief of police. He is currently a candidate for Sheriff of San Luis Obispo County.