Police Chief Jerry Dyer's latest plan to fight car thieves and burglars ran into stiff criticism from the unlikeliest of places -- the Fresno City Council.
The council on Thursday approved a pilot project that calls for Dyer to pay for five Fresno County jail beds to be reserved for some of the habitual property thieves plaguing the city.
Fresno County supervisors gave their thumbs up Tuesday, so now the deal between Dyer and Sheriff Margaret Mims is a sure thing.
No one Thursday voted against Dyer's plan, though it received just six votes. Council Member Paul Caprioglio left the chamber moments before the vote. He later said he had to hit the bathroom.
But Council President Blong Xiong made it clear his support is tepid, and could disappear if the crime-fighting idea is such a success that city officials try to expand it.
Xiong's concerns include the potential of an embedded cost in a tight budget, a dearth of inmate rehabilitative programs and the extended jailing of people later proven to be innocent.
"We've just had a suggestion to go to 25" beds, said Xiong, referring to comments by Council Member Lee Brand. "What's next?"
Only Council Member Clint Olivier responded to Xiong's grilling of Dyer and Mims, saying he approves of Dyer's idea because crime "is the No. 1 issue" among his District 7 constituents.
Dyer's plan is simple.
The city leases five beds per day, to be used as the police department sees fit. The cost is $104 per bed per day, or $520 daily. The city must pay for all five, even if one goes empty.
Dyer is saving enough money ($124,840) from the department budget to pay for the beds through June 30, 2014, end of the current fiscal year.
Repeat offenders -- car thieves and burglars for the most part -- are often released early from jail due to an overcrowding problem nearly 20 years in the making. The city-county deal means a longer stay in custody for more criminals.
It's the backstory to Dyer's plan that is complex. It pivots on finding a way to convince the drug-addicted thieves to get the rehab they need but don't want.
As he did for the supervisors on Tuesday, Dyer told council members the familiar tale of local property crime. Fresno in 1994 was the nation's car-theft capital. The city slowly worked its way out of the top spot, but always was within striking distance. Car-theft numbers now are on the rise.
Dyer on the council chamber screen posted the mug shots of five of the city's most persistent car thieves. All have records that include things like burglary and dope charges, the chief said. All are familiar with the jail's revolving door.
His cops can catch the bad guys, Dyer said. The problem is keeping the bad guys from law-abiding Fresnans.
One part of the challenge is prison realignment, an experiment with California's criminal justice system of unprecedented scope.
Federal judges have ordered the state to release more than 50,000 prisoners for humanitarian reasons. Many have been moved to the Fresno County jail, along with extra money from the state. Still, Mims remains under intense public pressure as she tries to manage a jail population that consistently exceeds available beds.
The least dangerous offenders are released when the jail gets too crowded. They're told to show up in court on the appointed date.
All too often, Dyer said, they go back to stealing cars and breaking into homes.
The five jail beds will allow Dyer to play a high-stakes game of leverage.
Almost all habitual property criminals are drug addicts, Dyer said. Ideally, he said, the thieves awaiting court dates would transition quickly from jail to a treatment program that keeps a tight rein on them. This would free jail beds for the next wave of thieves.
But thieves are now rejecting treatment because they know that's their ticket to a quick release back to the streets, Dyer said.
The only way to get thieves to voluntarily embrace the challenge of drug treatment is to give them an unpalatable alternative, Dyer said.
"That alternative is jail," the chief said.
Dyer was preaching to the choir as far as Brand was concerned.
Brand, who already has eyes on the 2016 mayoral election, is the council's No. 1 budget-cruncher. For example, he almost single-handedly put an end to the theft of street-light copper wire by finding the money to harden the lights' ground boxes with concrete.
Brand said he has no doubt the five beds will be filled 24/7. He said next spring's budget hearings might be the perfect time to consider expanding the program to as many as 25 beds.
The money can be found, Brand said.
Xiong was upset by the talk of Dyer, Mims and Brand.
"This is an extremely tough decision for me," Xiong said.
In addition to concerns with inmate equity and rehabilitation, Xiong noted that Dyer's plan will spend general fund money at the same time the administration of Mayor Ashley Swearengin is asking city unions for budget-fixing contract concessions.
Xiong, who is termed out in 14 months and has announced his candidacy for the Fresno County District 1 supervisorial seat, joined forces with several unions this year to defeat Swearengin's effort to outsource the city's residential trash service. He and the mayor often land on opposite sides of City Hall issues.
Police-sheriff consolidation and cooperation are perpetual themes in Fresno. Xiong worries this latest example could burden future budgets with a politically-untouchable expense.
Dyer agreed with Xiong that spending general fund money on public safety "is a difficult pill to swallow -- until you look at the alternative pill to swallow."
That alternative, Dyer said, is criminals "repeatedly victimizing people."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or email@example.com. Read his City Beat blog at news.fresnobeehive.com/city-beat.