Word spread quickly around the Mountain Area about a recent increase in break-ins. In response, on Tuesday, July 8, more than 120 concerned Mountain Area citizens eagerly attended a Chamber of Commerce Town Hall Safety and Awareness meeting at the Oakhurst Community Center to discuss the next course of action to prevent these increasingly blatant crimes.
In attendance to discuss the matter, and help keep citizens aware, was Madera County Undersheriff Michael Salvador, CHP Lieutenant Commander Sandra Adams, District Attorney Michael Keitz as well as the head of the Sheriff's Department neighborhood watch program JoAnn Evans.
Throughout the evening, Salvador provided the community with tips to best keep citizens from making themselves vulnerable and easy targets for thieves.
"Ninety percent of crooks will tell you that you were an easy target and it was easy to get in, get out, and make a little money," Salvador said.
Tips to reducing chances of becoming a target and victim of a crime include:
Keeping all doors locked at all times
Installing motion detecting lights
Installing security systems
Keeping valuables out of plain sight
Knowing your neighbors and their schedules
Being aware of your surroundings
Keep a defensible space (trimming bushes and trees keeping your house visible)
Pursuing a concealed weapons permit in the rare case of an attack
Community Service Officer, Evans, also advised people to take part in a neighborhood watch program in their area and keep in touch with the people in their community.
"The biggest thing is we want you to come together as a group and look out for one another," Evans said. "Get to know your neighbors."
Evans explained vacation house checks, and making the sheriff's office aware, allows volunteers to do routine location checks for those who are gone on vacation.
"Our volunteers do vacation house checks," Evans said. "So if you're on vacation they will come and check your residents while you're gone. Just make sure you fill out the request a week in advance and make sure you tell us when you return."
Evans also added that making sure addresses are visible could help emergency responders find locations with greater ease and in a more timely manner.
During the meeting, Salvador confirmed the publics previous assessment that break-in numbers were up slightly from last year.
"We are up nine burglaries in the Oakhurst Area. We had a rough May but trending over time that's not a huge number," Salvador said.
Out of the 20 plus reports Salvador pulled for the meeting he said one reoccurring theme was unlocked doors, something he said is the first step to making yourself a target.
"I know Oakhurst is a nice place to live but lock your doors. Be aware of your surroundings. This is a tight knit community yet there is a lot of influx from the surrounding areas," Salvador said. "I pulled 15-20 crime reports from this area to prepare for this night, and the number one thing was an open back door, an open garage door, or an unlocked car parked in your driveway. Please, if you do nothing else, lock your houses, your doors, your fences and gates. It's the number one way you can prevent yourself from becoming a victim."
Like many community members who have personally experienced a recent break-in, Salvador blames drugs as the main reason behind the burglaries and thefts.
"Most criminal activity revolves around narcotics we know that, it's proven. Even gang activity revolves around drugs," Salvador said.
Throughout the meeting several citizens addressed the undersheriff arguing the need for keeping criminals locked up and off the streets, however Salvador explained that with the implementation new legislation such as the recent administration of Assembly Bill 109 - known as prison realignment - the Madera County Sheriff's Office and other law enforcement agencies as well as the District Attorney's Office is having trouble keeping these criminals locked up.
Under AB-109 newly convicted low-level crime offenders without current or prior violent offenses, will be forced to complete their time at the county jail level. According to Salvador this realignment has created pressure and massive over crowding at the county jail level.
AB 109 was instituted in response to a Supreme Court decision requiring the number of inmates in California's state prisons to be reduced to 137.5% capacity by 2013 in the state's 33 prisons.
Signed in 2011, AB109 shifted the responsibility from state prisons the the county jails for incarcerating low-level offenders. Under the new law counties will be responsible to supervise, rehabilitate and manage low-level offenders. Under the law, up to 30,000 state prison inmates are to be transferred to county jails by the end of 2014, under the bill.
"There isn't enough room in the jails as state prisoners are being pushed back to us. Because of a change in the law we have seen a spike in occurrences."
Several times throughout the evening, Salvador compared the justice system to a diamond in which each of the sides were dependant on the other. If one of those sides fail to do its part the entire justice system diamond would collapse. Those departments include citizens, law enforcement, district attorney/prosecution, and corrections.
"Due to a change in the law we've seen a spike in the community thefts. The law changed, so our statistical numbers stayed the same but our ratio increased," Salvador said.
Salvador stressed the fact that each arm of the justice system affects the other and the new laws have created a traffic jam of offenders which has made it difficult for the sheriff's office to keep criminals locked up.
"That affects us at the sheriff's office, that affects the district attorney's office, and that affects the jails," Salvador said. "That is just something we are going to have to deal with over the next five years."
Adding to the ongoing struggle to fight crime, Salvador expressed his distaste for Proposition 47, which finds itself on this November's ballot.
The initiative, if approved by the state's voters, would mandate misdemeanors instead of felonies for "non-serious, nonviolent crimes," such as petty theft and drug possession, unless the defendant has prior convictions for violent and serious crimes. The proposition would permit re-sentencing for anyone who was previously incarcerated for any offense listed on the initiative and reduce those sentences to misdemeanors.
During the meeting Salvador emphasized the importance of making calls when observing irregular activities regardless of the circumstances and keeping yourself aware of your surroundings.
"I ran a stat sheet on the county from all seven reporting districts and the last six months versus the first six months of 2013 and we're only up 1% on calls for service. If you don't call us we don't come, if you don't testify in court we don't get prosecutions, and if you don't talk to your board of supervisors they don't know where to put the money," Salvador said.
To report a crime in your area contact the sheriff's office at (559) 685-7770 or in the case of an emergency dial 911.