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.
Jail and Prison Populations in California, 2005-2012
U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Census of Jails, 1999 and 2005; Annual
Survey of Jails, midyear 2006–2012; Deaths in Custody Reporting Program,
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
custody arrangements, bail
reform to sentencing
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.