Victoria Castillo, the organizer of Merced Organizing Project’s Live Free campaign, speaks to a crowd gathered outside the Merced County Sheriff’s Office in August to discuss a report. Thaddeus Miller

Victoria Castillo, the organizer of Merced Organizing Project’s Live Free campaign, speaks to a crowd gathered outside the Merced County Sheriff’s Office in August to discuss a report. Thaddeus Miller

By Brianna Calix

A report from a national advocacy group gave Merced County a failing grade in incarceration practices, but this week county officials rebutted the findings, questioning its data and saying it neglects to recognize programs adopted in the last two years.

The county’s Sheriff’s Office, Probation Department and District Attorney’s Office all responded to the Live Free report, calling it inaccurate, and saying it lacks references for data and misrepresents information.

County officials also said no one from the Merced Organizing Project, a local faith-based affiliate of the PICO National Network, contacted county staff while collecting information for the report.

“The report is inaccurate and no one from that organization made any effort to discuss concerns or criticisms with our office prior to issuing their report,” District Attorney Larry Morse II said in a statement. “As always, we remain willing to discuss public safety issues with any organization or member of the community.”

The report, published in August, called on local law enforcement leaders to adopt practices the authors said led to improvements in other communities in the state and nation. The report said blacks in Merced County were four times more likely than whites to be jailed, that the jail population rose 16 percent from 1985 to 2014, and that the number of incarcerated women increased by 274 percent in that same period.

Andrea Marta, a campaign manager with People Improving Communities Through Organizing, or PICO, said the organization worked with researchers from the University of Wisconsin, Rutgers University and elsewhere to compile the data for the report, which came from county-level annual surveys on jails that are reported to the state Department of Justice.

In the Sheriff’s Office response to the Live Free report, Lt. Dave Alvey said the report’s jail population statistics didn’t take into consideration that the county opened the John Latorraca Correctional Center in 1990, increasing the inmate capacity with the addition of dorms and bed space. Alvey said the jail population rose at a slower rate than the general county population, according to U.S. Census data.

Marta said PICO is looking at numbers, not whether or not jails were added.

“It’s up to the county whether or not to fill those beds,” she said. “There may be more beds, but they don’t have to use them.”

In terms of inmate re-entry into the jail system, the report didn’t acknowledge many practices the county implemented starting in 2014, according to the county’s response. In 2014, the Sheriff’s Office and Probation Department began working with GEO Reentry Services, an evidence-based program that the county says aligns with the Live Free best practice recommendations.

So far in 2016, 224 inmates participated in a behavioral intervention program with a recidivism rate of 23 percent, said John Hendon, the correctional officer and program services manager. That’s compared with a state recidivism rate of more than 80 percent. GEO Reentry Services recognized Merced County as No. 1 in California and the Western Region for its low recidivism rate and began implementing Merced’s practices at other programs across the nation, he said.

The report also gave the county a failing grade in a “school to prison pipeline” category. Though the county doesn’t play a hand in school programs, most county school districts use restorative justice programs or the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports approach, which align with Live Free’s best practices. About a week after the report was publicized, Le Grand High School staff and students trekked to the White House to showcase their restorative justice program as a national model.

Victoria Castillo, the local Live Free campaign organizer, said she didn’t have a part in gathering the data. Instead, she served as a messenger. She said she was disappointed that none of the county’s leaders, including supervisors and police chiefs, attended a summit Thursday night at Sacred Heart Catholic Church to discuss the findings.

She said she only received a response from District 5 Supervisor Jerry O’Banion saying he couldn’t make it. Sheriff Vern Warnke also offered her a closed-door meeting, she said, but she wanted to have a discussion in a public forum.

“We’re looking for transparency,” she said.

Castillo and Marta say they hope that county leaders will be more willing to collaborate in the future.

“We want to build trust with our law enforcement,” Castillo said. “We want to change the narrative, and we can only do that if we work together.”

Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477

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