A jail so crowded that most convicts serve only a fraction of their sentences. Slow response times by deputies in rural San Joaquin County that outrage residents. A department that has faced upheaval after its leader was convicted of federal mail fraud and subsequently retired in the middle of his term. These are the challenges facing the county's new sheriff-coroner, and voters this fall are tasked with choosing between two candidates who have decades of experience.
Dennis Lobenberg, 56, who retired last year as a deputy chief with the California Highway Patrol, is facing off against current Assistant Sheriff Steve Moore, 51.
Lobenberg, of Lockeford, said his outsider status will help strengthen the department, and he pointed to the fact that local law enforcement associations - including deputies' and correctional officers' groups - have endorsed him.
"We need to change," he said, adding that law enforcement officers rarely break rank. "It signals that they're looking for new leadership."
Moore, in turn, said his experience with the Sheriff's department has shown him what works and what needs improvement, and that the leadership position will give him an opportunity to make changes.
Both men agreed that the jail needs to be expanded - a plan that has been in the works for years. A new wing that would add 512 beds to the French Camp jail has been in the plan for years, but in the meantime hundreds of inmates are released early each month due to crowding.
Moore, a Linden resident who is now in his 25th year with the department, wants to see that wing built, but with some changes that would allow for double bunks in the cells. That would create room to hold roughly 1,000 additional inmates, he sad.
"But you can't just build more jails, because if you fill them up you just need more beds," he said.
The jail currently has programs that train some inmates for jobs such as upholstery, food preparation and vehicle maintenance. Moore wants to add more programs, and also increase drug treatment.
One of the biggest factors in rising crime and jail population is methamphetamine, Moore said.
"Not only do people have to pay for their narcotic habit, but they're also up all night with nothing else to do," he said of the illegal drug that causes users to stay awake for days at a time, and often leads to thefts and violence.
A countywide drug task force, maintained by the department, has helped get rid of large drug labs, Moore said, but budget woes have cut staffing and made it harder to combat drugs that now stream across the Mexico border.
Dennis LobenbergAge: 56
Occupation: Retired deputy chief, California Highway Patrol.
• Worked for the California Highway Patrol for 31 years.
• Enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1968 and served during the Vietnam War.
• Was born in Stockton and graduated from Stagg High School.
Steve MooreAge: 51
Occupation: San Joaquin County Assistant Sheriff
• Started with Oxnard Police Department in 1978, and the Sheriff's Office in 1982.
• Received a bachelor's degree in criminology law enforcement from California State University, Fresno.
• Became a police explorer at age 16.
Lobenberg, who retired after 31 years with the CHP, also pointed to drug problems, and related jail crowding.
"The current management of the Sheriff's Office has paid lip service to this for years, but I think the people are looking for someone to get it done," he said of the jail building plans.
He envisions creating a separate division to oversee jail expansion, and wants to seek input from business leaders and developers who regularly construct entire buildings in short time, and wants to get a plan to the Board of Supervisors in six to eight months. Additionally, he wants to plan for the number of beds that will be needed 30 years from now, so that the expanded jail would actually last a number of years.
Both candidates acknowledged the need for more rural patrol, especially in areas such as Thornton and Acampo, which are near the county line and are often patrolled by only one car.
"Even as you add technology, you still need the basic building blocks, which is staff," Moore said.
Each year the department hires 12 deputies to make up for retirees, but he wants to ask the Board of Supervisors for 10 more deputies each year, which would balance the county's growing population, he said.
Moore wants to "put a face back on the Sheriff's Department" by having more deputies make contact with those in rural areas. For instance, he said, he regularly stops in a Linden store on his way to work, just to check in and see if they've heard of problems in the area.
Lobenberg also seeks to increase patrol in rural areas, and wants to break the county up into four quadrants with deputies assigned to each one. He also wants to encourage the CHP to patrol more frequently through rural areas and work with Sheriff's deputies.
The two candidates faced off, with several others, in a June primary election. The winner will replace Sheriff Robert Heidelbach, who replaced Baxter Dunn in February 2005 and did not run for reelection. Dunn retired that January, the same day he pleaded guilty in federal court to mail fraud in a public corruption case.
First published: Saturday, October 7, 2006