Furlough inmates' behavior questioned
County work release program has some neighbors concerned
For over 20 years, the county work furlough program at 590 East Middlefield Road has given inmates a chance to hold down a job while serving out their sentences.
The program houses 118 inmates, all of them men purportedly convicted of low-level, nonviolent crimes such as embezzlement, driving under the influence or drug possession. Sentences typically range from six months to a year.
Under the furlough system, the men are allowed to maintain their day jobs to pay restitution to their victims or support their families. They must report back to the facility after work, and many of them commute using the light rail station across the street.
But times are changing for this neighborhood, with hundreds of new homes built in the last few years, and hundreds more in the pipeline. And some residents say the furlough program's inmates are unwanted neighbors — particularly when it comes to sharing the light rail station.
"Sometimes it's just me, me and a bunch of guys," said one woman, a nearby resident and engineer who until recently used the station in the early morning to get to her job in Sunnyvale. (The Voice is withholding her name by her request.)
She said the Middlefield light rail station is mostly populated by inmates in the mornings, and that they engage in crude language and behavior, making it an intimidating place to wait for a train.
Recently, she said, she saw one of the men grab his crotch and gesture towards a young woman in her early 20s who was also waiting at the station. For both her and the young woman, she said, taking a bus suddenly seemed like a better alternative.
She said that when she finally did start taking a bus, the driver asked her, "Tired of riding with those jailbirds?"
The woman added that one detail bothers her in particular: Some of the inmates are registered sex offenders.
According to the Megan's Law Web site, which was established to track sex offenders, at least two residents of the work furlough program have been convicted of "lewd and lascivious acts" with children under 14 years of age.
On the chopping block
Whatever neighbors think of the program may soon become moot, as the county has put it on the chopping block this year in order to save $1 million annually. If the program is cut, the county says, most inmates will become eligible for house arrest, while some would go to a minimum security prison.
But Supervisor Liz Kniss has said she is committed to keeping the program in operation.
"The center provides a very unique kind of opportunity" for rehabilitation, Kniss told the Voice last month. "I will fight for it again."
Meanwhile, it is up to Santa Clara County officials to make sure the program's inmates are not a problem for local residents, said Delores Nnam, spokesperson for the county probation department. Nnam said inmates would likely be advised that complaints about their behavior could affect their sentences.
"We would definitely respond to that kind of a complaint," she said. "We would re-advise them of their responsibility to the community. They would definitely be admonished, if nothing else."
Nnam confirmed that there are at least two sex offenders at the site, and that one of them was convicted of "sexual battery involving a restrained person."
She said it's up to the judges whether sex offenders can reside there, depending on how violent their offense is. Helping them stay employed means they can pay restitution to their victims.
She also noted that there is a camera on the rear of the building facing the light rail station. It was not confirmed how well the camera records activity at the station.
The former station user said she was aware of the camera, and that she tried all different ways to approach the problem, including contacting the county. But she said she received no response.
"I do not think it is fair that [women] have to go to such extremes to get to and from work safely," she said, adding that her college-aged daughter, who often visits a friend in Sunnyvale, also avoids the station.
Despite all that, she acknowledged mixed feelings about closing the center.
"I'm kind of torn," she said. "I do have compassion for people who have made mistakes, but I'm also a parent and a woman, so my concerns are that there are guys in there — child molesters, guys who do crimes against women."
Anyone reporting problems with the work furlough center can call Delores Nnam of the county probation department at (408) 468-1658.
E-mail Daniel DeBolt at email@example.com