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California Sheriffs Appropriate Rehabilitation Funds for Security Needs

As California’s budget crisis deepens, local law enforcement agencies are looking for creative ways to cover shortfalls in their budgets. Increasingly, county sheriffs are raiding funds intended by the Legislature to be expended “primarily for the benefit, education and welfare of the inmates confined within the jail.” Referred to as “inmate welfare funds” (or “IWF’s”), traditionally those funds have been used to pay for programs that help to rehabilitate prisoners. With local budgets stretched thin, however, more and more sheriffs are redirecting those funds to pay for equipment, construction, and increased security -- expenditures that ordinarily would be covered out of the general fund. In so doing, the sheriffs risk being sued. A 2005 suit against Santa Clara County officials, for instance, settled in 2008 when the county agreed to reimburse the IWF $1.5 million and also to make policy changes that will limit the possibility of such misappropriation of funds in the future.

Similarly, grand juries in Orange and Los Angeles counties are investigating whether the sheriffs of those counties misused their IWF’s. And in Sacramento County, prisoner advocates claim that the sheriff’s department has inappropriately diverted more than one million dollars from the IWF there to pay for construction costs and such items as security cameras.

Significantly, IWF money is derived from profits generated by selling writing materials, hygiene products, food and other canteen items to the prisoners housed in the jail, as well as from proceeds from collect phone calls made by those prisoners -- but not from taxpayer-funded sources.

The possibility of lawsuits notwithstanding, the alleged misdirection of IWF’ s by local law enforcement agencies is likely to continue because the statute which provides for the existence of those funds is vaguely worded, leaving room for a range of interpretations sufficiently broad that the outcome of a lawsuit is never a foregone conclusion.

In tough economic times then, programs intended to increase public safety by rehabilitating prisoners (or otherwise helping them to transition back into society) may fall prey to creative bookkeeping as sheriffs, willing to chance being sued, seize upon statutory ambiguity in an effort to balance their budgets.

Source: Sacramento Bee

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