California should reject switch to short probation because it could send more criminals to jail: analyst

A jail cell .

Gov. Gavin Newsom's proposal to sharply reduce the time a convict is under supervised release could wind up sending more criminals to jail or prison, the reverse of what he intends, the nonpartisan legislative analyst said Tuesday.

It recommended that California lawmakers reject the idea.

Newsom wants to set a maximum two-year limit on probation terms, down from five for felons and three for those convicted of misdemeanors.

But in practice, misdemeanor probation would be limited to one year, the legislative analyst warned, unless the offender is convicted of multiple misdemeanors. That could lead judges and prosecutors to start sending more offenders to prison if they think the criminal needs more than a year of supervision.

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Those on felony probation or on misdemeanor probation for unlawful possession of firearms, theft, domestic violence and certain sex offenses would be freed from supervision if they substantially comply with the terms of their probation for one year, under the proposed budget Newsom sent to legislators last month.

The Democratic governor predicted that his proposal would increase the intensity of supervision and rehabilitation services earlier in the probation term, when they are considered the most effective. That would likely reduce the number of misdemeanor probationers sent to prison, he said.

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“We are seriously concerned that these changes could have unintended consequences, such as increasing the number of individuals who are sentenced to jail or prison rather than probation,” the analyst warned.

Counties would get their state funding regardless of how many people they send to prison, it noted. There would be no requirement that they actually increase services. And the increased supervision would be based on the crime rather than concentrated on individuals who are more likely to commit new crimes and have a greater need for services.

Newsom spokeswoman Vicky Waters said the administration disagrees with the analyst's assessment.

The proposal “aims to reduce recidivism by focusing on more robust supervision, as well as enhanced access to programs and services so they can have better opportunities and outcomes,” she said in an email. The administration will work with lawmakers, who must approve a final budget by June 15, to "enact nation-leading progressive reform we can all be proud of.”

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Most misdemeanor probationers currently are not actively engaged in any probation services or programs, Newsom's administration said.

He wants lawmakers to send $60 million a year to counties to actively supervise certain misdemeanor offenders, a step he said is partly intended to counter a rash of petty property crimes including car burglaries in urban areas.

“Requiring supervision of certain misdemeanor probationers would likely not prevent misdemeanor probationers from going to prison,” the legislative analyst countered.

A decade-old law gives counties a financial incentive to reduce the rate at which they send felony probationers to state prison. They get a share of the resulting state correctional savings, which the analyst said should be updated to include misdemeanors to increase the likelihood that more lower-level criminals are kept out of prison.

Law enforcement groups last month split over Newsom's proposal.

The Chief Probation Officers of California agreed with him that providing early services is the best way to prevent probationers from committing new crimes. But California Police Chiefs Association President Ron Lawrence said longer probation terms are a deterrent and allow officers to readily search offenders, their homes and vehicles.