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California counties report fewer fugitive felons skipping out on probation after shift
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SACRAMENTO  (AP) — Fewer felons are skipping out on probation under California's new criminal justice realignment than under the state's old parole system, according to a report released Wednesday.

The report obtained by The Associated Press is the first six-month snapshot of trends in all 58 counties.

It found that less than 4 percent of felons failed to report to their county probation officers after their release from state prison, compared to 14 percent who faced fugitive arrest warrants for failing to report to their parole officers under the old system.

More than 23,000 ex-convicts are supervised at the county level instead of by state parole agents after a law took effect in October to save the state money and reduce prison crowding.

The report by the Chief Probation Officers of California said early concerns that many felons might go unsupervised under the new law appear to be overstated.

A related change in state law is helping drive down the numbers of fugitives, said Michael Daly, chief probation officer in Marin County and chairman of the committee that produced the report. Ex-convicts can be released from supervision after six months if they show up and don't have infractions, compared to a year under previous law.

"We've hung out a pretty good carrot there" for offenders to behave, he said.

Moreover, many counties are sending probation officers to pick up offenders from prison, instead of letting them make their own way back to their hometown. Some counties work with inmates before their release to help them get jobs and housing. Contra Costa County's chief probation officer writes a personal letter to each inmate nearing release, laying out what is expected of the offender and what help the county can provide.

"It's those little creative things, I think, that are making a difference," Daly said.

It's too soon to say if the extra attention will result in lower crime rates and fewer ex-convicts committing new crimes. The chief probation officers plan to track that data in upcoming quarterly reports that include both statewide information and breakdowns for each county.

About 38,000 felons have been shifted to local responsibility since the new law took effect. They include the 23,000 being overseen by local probation departments and 15,000 offenders serving time in county jails.

Realignment "is dramatically changing criminal justice in California," the report said, reducing the state prison population below 140,000 for the first time since 1996 and cutting the number of state-supervised parolees below 70,000.

The first statewide survey of counties found that the number of criminals sentenced to jails instead of state prisons remains higher than had been projected by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Sheriffs reported an initial surge in their jail populations immediately after the law took effect as they absorbed the less-serious offenders who previously would have gone to state prisons.

The spike is leveling off, according to the new figures. Initially, 33 percent more inmates than expected were shifted to local jails, but by March, jails were seeing 16 percent more convicts than projected.

"Those numbers are starting to settle down, but they're settling higher than anticipated," said Nick Warner, spokesman for the California State Sheriffs' Association.

That has forced some sheriffs to release convicts early to ease jail crowding, leading to scattered incidents where offenders have committed new crimes.

Daly said the jail populations should drop lower as the early surge of offenders sentenced last fall complete their sentences.

The new figures show judges and prosecutors are increasing their use of so-called "split sentences," in which offenders serve a portion of their time behind bars and the remainder under supervision or alternative custody programs like house arrest. That, too, should ultimately lower jail populations, Daly said.