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Split sentencing generally shunned in county

Posted: December 31, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: December 31, 2013 2:00 a.m.

The state’s controversial prison realignment program is now more than two years old, and the man charged with overseeing the Los Angeles County Probation Department said he would like to see more offenders divide their sentence time between custody and formal supervision.

Such an option, known as “split sentencing,” is allowed under the state’s prison realignment law, which transfers responsibility of some criminals whose offenses are deemed non-sexual, non-serious or non-violent in nature, so-called “non-non-nons,” from the state to the county.

This means they are sentenced to county jail rather than state prison — or they fall under county probation supervision. 

While some other counties in California make regular use of split sentences, only about 5 percent of realignment offenders in Los Angeles County have received such a sentence, according to figures from the Probation Department.

“I am still very concerned at the low number of split sentences,” said Jerry Powers, who heads the Los Angeles County Probation Department, at a Dec. 17 meeting of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

But the issue may be more complex than meets the eye, according to Anna Pembedjian, justice deputy for county Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich.

“There is not one reason why the percentage (of split sentences) in L.A. County is smaller,” Pembedjian said. “There is a multitude of reasons.”

William Hodgman, an assistant district attorney with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, said one of those reasons is that offenders seem more amenable to a longer custody sentence instead of a split sentence.

“What I get reflected back to me from defense attorneys is that many, if not most, of their defendants do not want split sentences as part of a case settlement because they don’t want what is known as a supervision tail,” Hodgman said.

A supervision tail could include a probation stint or mandatory participation in drug or mental health treatment programs, Hodgman said.

“It seems counter-intuitive to the intent of AB 109 (realignment), which is to provide programs and enable certain offenders to helpfully steer themselves away from continuing a life of crime,” Hodgman said.

Compounding the matter is the overcrowded state of county jails.

“Because of overcrowding, many low-level criminal offenders realize they can avoid a supervision tail by doing more custody time,” Hodgman said. “And, frankly, they’d rather eat a little more custody time than hit the streets with a supervision tail.”

Already some offenders who are not non-non-nons are being released from custody early due, in part, to capacity constraints in the county jail system, according to Pembedjian.

Pembedjian estimated that these inmates are typically serving between 20 and 40 percent of their sentenced time, though those sentenced under realignment typically serve their entire sentence.

“The sheriff has made that a priority,” she said.

Hodgman said split sentences are another “tool in the sentencing toolbox” that may be used more as time passes.

But, he said, the onus is on offenders who want to submit to the types of programs required in a split sentence.

“I think as the whole system grows more accustomed to the parameters of AB 109 that we could very well start seeing more split sentences,” he said. “And again a key factor gets back to the motivation of the individual offender, himself or herself.

“There’s got to be that motivation to want to be supervised, to want to go into a program and to want to better themselves,” he said.


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