City leaders discuss program of releasing nonviolent criminals

Newport Beach Police Chief Jay Johnson says he is concerned about a state plan to release nonviolent offenders from prisons and into local communities.

Under the state's realignment plan designed to relieve prison overcrowding, nonserious, nonviolent offenders have been released under probation rather than being placed on parole.

The plan also shifted the burden of housing such offenders from the state to local jails and eased sentencing to lighten jail loads.

"I'm very, very concerned," Johnson said during the City Council study session Tuesday. "Very concerned about the impact this has and will have."

While the number of offenders released into Newport Beach has been a relatively low 15 since the plan was enacted in October, police Capt. Dale Johnson told council members that the Police Department is primarily concerned with the high number of offenders released into surrounding Orange County communities.

Since realignment went into effect, 92 offenders have been released into Costa Mesa, 62 into Huntington Beach, 37 into Irvine and four into Laguna, Dale Johnson said.

Part of the concern is largely that those who commit crimes in Newport Beach are rarely residents, Dale Johnson said.

Lighter sentencing for nonserious crimes affects Newport Beach specifically because 80% of crimes committed in the city are property crimes, such as burglary, and thus fall in the "nonserious" category, he said.

Criminals routinely visit Newport, a popular destination, and commit crimes while they are there, said Dale Johnson.

Lighter sentences may mean the types of crimes typically committed in the city won't face as stringent a punishment, and those who commit the crimes may remain or return to communities sooner than expected.

Local cities are also carrying the financial burden of the state's plan, which originated as Assembly Bill 109.

While Orange County received $25 million to manage and supervise the offenders released into the community, Dale Johnson said the Orange County Sheriff's and Probation departments received the lion's share of overseeing more offenders.

He said some local communities have seen an uptick in crime between 2011 and 2012, and data suggest there could be a link to this and the state's realignment plan, although he cautioned that it was too soon to draw conclusions.

"Well, obviously it's a matter of concern," Mayor Nancy Gardner said, encouraging residents to lock their vehicles and homes to prevent property crimes.

Recent changes in the Police Department are a move in the right direction toward preparing for possible ramifications of realignment, she said.

"I'm very pleased though that our Police Department has taken such proactive steps to be anticipating and restructured some of the duties," Gardner said. "I think that's something our residents can take comfort in."

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