Assessing California's far-reaching experiment with prison realignment is a numbers game for Stanislaus County authorities.
And they don't have enough numbers yet to say whether it is working.
In the eight months since responsibility began shifting from state prisons and parole to county jails and probation:
Jails designed for lower-level offenders are receiving "more sophisticated, more violent and more manipulative (inmates) with a different set of rights and privileges," Sheriff Adam Christianson said.
Such prisoners now make up 26 percent of the local jail population.
To make room for them, other felons are being released early from county lockups.
The district attorney and public defender are handling more felony cases, but can't be sure why.
The sheriff and chief probation officer have received more money to hire more officers.
With fewer ex-cons to watch, parole officers expect the ax eventually to fall on them.
It's a mixed bag, say local authorities who are closely watching their budgets, staffing levels and evolving legislation while trying to figure out how best to keep everyone safe.
"While I have genuine concerns, we're going to make this work," Christianson said. "We have no other choice."
Show them the money
The sheriff called realignment "bad policy" when state leaders last year decided on the radical change as a means of saving millions of dollars while also complying with federal orders to reduce prison overcrowding.
"It was rushed. It wasn't well thought out," Christianson said.
District Attorney Birgit Fladager said, "Everyone is still trying to figure it out."
This much is sure: Public safety agencies in Stanislaus County received $6.5 million from the state for the first nine months of realignment, which started in October, and they'll get $12 million more in the fiscal year starting July 1.
The money is a double-edged sword for probation and the Sheriff's Department, which must deal with a more hardened offender population, but finally can afford to beef up staff.
Christianson had agonized over 103 layoffs from 2009 to 2011, including patrol, custody and support staff. With realignment money, he has hired back all jail guards who hadn't moved on.
In fact, the department can afford to bring on even more but now struggles to find quality applicants. A 6 percent pay reduction demanded by county administrators, still being negotiated with some unions, makes the Sheriff's Department less attractive to the best candidates.
Of every 100 people in candidate pools, the department is lucky to find a couple meeting its standards, Christianson said, and probation hasn't had much better luck. He and Chief Probation Officer Jill Silva said prior drug use is a common problem among potential applicants.
A result: The Sheriff's Department has 23 full-time and 43 part-time vacancies.
The sheriff repeatedly has warned that realignment could prove disastrous if a permanent funding stream is not constitutionally guaranteed. That could happen with voter approval of the governor's tax package in November, but few are willing to predict what lies in store if it doesn't pass.
Silva remains optimistic because the governor has promised not to leave counties holding the bag.
She heads the county's realignment team, called the Community Corrections Partnership, composed of leaders from all law enforcement agencies. They decide how to split up the state money more than $18 million in realignment's first 21 months.
The first phase focused mostly on custody and probation needs. Phase 2 will commit more money to mental health, substance abuse and vocational programs, Silva said.
She expects to unveil the plan before the county Board of Supervisors late this month. On Tuesday, she and other department heads will brief supervisors on preliminary budget plans.
Silva has added 11 probation officers, has money to bring on five or six more if qualified applicants can be found, and expects to hire five more with additional realignment money in the coming year.
With each hiring round, more former state parole workers apply.
Modesto's parole office has not lost employees. But it has lost business, presumably to county probation, and officers expect someday to be transferred to other state corrections jobs, or get pink slips.
"Everybody is bracing for the impact," said Clint Faria, a unit supervisor. "We just don't know what it's going to be."
Court cases increasing
Meanwhile, there has not been a realignment rush on Stanislaus County courtrooms, said Presiding Judge Ricardo Córdova.
But attorneys on both sides say their caseloads, curiously, started growing about the same time realignment kicked in. They just don't know if it's a direct result, or coincidence.
Felony cases filed by prosecutors dropped nearly 14 percent from the first quarter of 2009 to the same time period in 2010, and 15.8 percent in the same period of 2011. But in the first three months of this year, after realignment started springing felons early from local jails, felony filings ticked up 9 percent.
Public defenders had seen their cases drop in four consecutive years until this year, when the first three months brought a spike of 282 more than in the same period in 2011.
"I don't absolutely know why," said Public Defender Tim Bazar. "It's conjecture, but to me, what makes the most sense is we're again hiring people to protect and supervise our community and there are more people out there in a position to arrest people."
Bazar's staff has handled the increase, but he's concerned about being stretched too thin. Budget cuts dropped his staff from 49 to 37 over four years.
Rise in lawsuits, too?
Fladager said realignment could produce a costly consequence predicted by few when the shift started: an increase in inmate lawsuits. Lawyers are poking around, seeking to protect rights involving meals and religious observance associated with state custody and not county jails, she said.
The sheriff agreed and added that prison inmates are "a sicker population" than typical county jail offenders. "Inmate health care costs are through the roof," Christianson said.
Although the jury's still out on realignment's impact, a few more months of numbers should suggest trends, said local authorities.
"We haven't been doing it long enough. It's just really hard to say," Silva said.
She added, "I don't think keeping them in prison has worked."
The Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors will hold a hearing on the 2012-13 proposed budget, including public safety agencies, at 9 a.m. Tuesday in the basement chamber at Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St., Modesto.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2390.