Democrats Shrink County Realignment Plan to “Wobblers”

The budget plan released August 3 by legislative Democrats significantly scales back an earlier proposal to shift greater responsibility to counties for several state social programs, including welfare.

In June, Senate Democrats pitched a plan that would have moved $4.3 billion in costs to counties within four years, paying for it with tax increases and the earmarking of some current state taxes.

That plan contained a small criminal justice component — shifting more juvenile probation services to counties as well as transferring prison inmates convicted of drug and property crimes to county jails.

Democrats now have abandoned moving any social programs to counties, proposing only the shifting of $375 million in state prison costs by making counties responsible for incarcerating persons convicted of “wobbler” offenses.

A “wobbler” is a lesser felony that allows for fines or jail time as an alternative to state prison.

California defines several hundred offenses as “wobblers.” While mainly in the Penal Code, “wobblers” can also be found in the Commercial Code, Corporation Code and Business and Professions Code.

Among them are: participating in criminal street gang activity, second degree burglary, racing a drugged horse, vehicular manslaughter without drugs or alcohol, bigamy, grand theft, rent skimming and forging a prescription.

Here’s a more complete list.

So far, Democrats have issued only a summary of their budget proposal so how the transfer of responsibility for “wobblers” would work isn’t entirely clear.  A more complete description of the plan is pending.

The summary says:

“Counties will be able to house and supervise the offenders at the local level if they so choose or may transfer the ‘wobbler’ offenders to state prison and pay for it.”

It is unlikely that many counties will elect to house the “wobbler” offenders locally given their already overcrowded jails.

According to an assessment of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s initial budget proposal by the Legislative Analyst, roughly half of California’s county jails operate under court–ordered or self–imposed population caps.

A 2006 “white paper” by the California State Sheriffs Association said 20 of the state’s 58 counties — including Los Angeles, Riverside and Calaveras – were under court-ordered population caps, resulting in the early release of inmates because of a lack of space.

Over 200,000 jail inmates were released early in 2007 due to lack of space, according to the legislative analyst.

In his budget plan, the GOP governor proposed counties incarcerate persons convicted of nine non-violent and property crime “wobblers:” Drug possession, possession of a controlled substance, possession for or sale of a controlled substance, grand theft, auto theft, auto theft with a prior, petty theft, petty theft with a prior, check fraud and receiving stolen property.

Senate Democrats backed the idea in their county-state realignment proposal.

Schwarzenegger said his plan would free up 15,000 state prison beds.

But the legislative analyst noted that because of population caps “most county jails would not be able to house the additional offenders that they would be required to supervise under the governor’s proposal.”

Although the nine offenses in Schwarzenegger’s plan are among the more common “wobblers,” the Democrats propose passing all “wobblers” to counties, suggesting more local early releases would be required to accommodate a greater number of offenders.

Counties have said repeatedly that any increase in their responsibilities be accompanied by a “viable, stable and ongoing funding stream,” as the California State Association of Counties said in a statement reacting to the initial realignment proposal by Senate Democrats.

The new plan by Democrats says a “permanent funding mechanism” will be created to pay for county costs.

It is unclear from the plan’s summary if this is an earmarking of existing state revenue or a new tax.

Republicans, both in the Senate and the Assembly, have vowed to back no spending plan containing tax increases of any kind, for any purpose.

In response to the more sweeping proposal offered by Senate Democrats, Senate GOP Leader Dennis Hollingsworth of Murrieta said:

“Raising taxes to pay for the shift of programs isn’t shrinking government, it’s just avoiding the inevitable: state government has to get smaller and more efficient.” Senate GOP Leader Dennis Hollingsworth of Murrieta.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has also said he won’t sign a budget with tax increases.



Filed under: Budget and Economy

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