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April 07
Burden on County Jails Increases as California Tries to Lower Prison Population

California jail population increased in 2012 as the implementation of the public safety realignment process forced reductions in prison population.  On February 10th this year, a three-judge panel approved California's proposal to extend their deadline for the reduction of prison populations to 2016.  This is the final deadline extension from an original court order in 2009 that sought to improve health and mental health care services for inmates by reducing California’s prison population to 137.5 percent of statewide capacity.  Unfortunately for counties, this public safety realignment that began in 2011 in California and similar decisions to reduce prison population across the United States may mean more inmates in county jails.

 

Local jails represent an important component of the correctional system in any state.  According to the 2012 Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) data, California jails house over 78,000 individuals, almost 4 in 10 incarcerated individuals in the state.  This is more than 10 percent of all the local jails’ inmates in the United States.  Generally, jails house individuals who are awaiting trial or who are serving short sentences, while prisons are federally or state-run facilities for individuals convicted of more serious offenses.  Local governments, mainly counties, fund and run jails; in 2007, according to the latest available Census of Governments data, counties spent $23.3 billion on correctional facilities, including jails. 

 

The recent public safety realignment process changes the state of affairs. 

 

The 2011 California public safety realignment policy places low level nonviolent offenders currently serving time in prison in county jails.  As a result, while prison population declined by nearly 10 percent in 2012, the number of people in jail increased by more than 12 percent, breaking a four-year trend of declining jail populations (See Figure).  Many local jails were already overcrowded and overburdened before the public safety realignment began.  According to the BJS Annual Survey of Jails, at least seven California jails had average daily inmate populations above capacity in 2010.  As Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Lt. Shea Johnson explained in a Santa Cruz Sentinel op-ed in October last year, “County jails were never intended to house people for a longer period of time, so we need to come up with solutions.”  To help counties fund their solutions, the state provides realignment funding to local jails to ease supervision costs and to expand jails where needed.

 

 

Figure. Jail and Prison Populations in California, 2005-2012


Source: U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Census of Jails, 1999 and 2005; Annual Survey of Jails, midyear 2006–2012; Deaths in Custody Reporting Program, yearend 2005–2011.

 jailGraph.png

Local jails are adapting to these changing circumstances across the United States.  In California, many county jails are placing individuals previously in jail under county community supervision programs as a part of the public safety realignment.  Across the United States, there have been proposals for alternatives to increasing jail capacity, from alternative custody arrangements, bail reform to sentencing reform.  The recent California experience shows that public safety realignment may increase the number of jail inmates and counties will face the increased financial burden to support these individuals.

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