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Changes in state sentencing law impact counties

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Figure1.pngSeveral states addressed justice policy at the polls last year, with many of the propositions that passed having a direct impact on county justice systems.

For example, California voted to reduce some nonviolent offenses such as drug possession and property crimes valued at less than $950 from felonies to misdemeanors, making them punishable by not more than one year in county jail. Voters in New Jersey decided to tackle jail overcrowding by voting to reform the bail system and allow low-risk defendants to be released before trial without bail.

These proposals follow at least two recent stories that highlight the problems confronting the county justice system. A former state lawmaker from California was sentenced to three months in Los Angeles County Jail following his conviction on perjury and fraud charges. In November 2014, he was released from jail after serving only a few hours of his sentence because of jail crowding.

That same month, a federal judge ordered Lucas County, Ohio to reduce its jail population. After the county prosecutor argued that nonviolent misdemeanor defendants cannot be released prior to trial because they would not show up for court, the federal judge suggested implementing a system that would remind defendants of court dates.

The proposals on the November 2014 election ballot and these stories speak to how justice policy at the state level has affected the local corrections system.


Prison Populations Drive Policy Changes

Based on Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) data, the state prison population has increased by more than 500 percent between 1973 and 2013. Growth of this magnitude is not without consequence for the states, from increasing spending on the corrections system to overcrowded prison facilities. State lawmakers have tried to address the size of the prison population through changes to the existing policies and practices that have contributed to an overuse of the criminal justice system.

Even though the state prison system is the primary target of these changes, many of the new laws have impacted or will impact county jails and probation departments. Since 2011 for example, counties in California have absorbed the impact of Assembly Bill (AB) 190, because the law shifted, from states to counties, the responsibility of supervising lower-level offenders and diverting to county jails parolees who violate technical conditions of release.

In 2013, South Dakota passed legislation that changed the punishment for certain types of crimes from time in prison to a sentence to county jail and asked the state to structure funding for counties that would be affected by new sentencing policies. Also in 2013, Virginia passed a law that required all counties in the state to establish drug courts, while Colorado added a new law that allows probation and community-based sentencing for certain drug convictions.

Figure2.pngState Justice Refo rm Sparks New Issues for Local Jails

County corrections may confront a number of issues in the wake of state movement toward justice policy reform. The impact of an increase in the number of convicted inmates in county jails is one of them.

According to the BJS, counties already operate jails with an average daily population that exceeds 83 percent of capacity. The situation is even more critical in counties with 1,000 inmates or more, where the jail occupancy rises to 88 percent. If a change in state law allows offenders convicted of certain crimes for example, drug offenses to be sentenced to county jail rather than state prison, then county jail populations will increase.

Further, it might put some county jails in an unfamiliar situation as they house types of offenders they have not previously had to incarcerate. While the current BJS data suggest that county spending on corrections has kept pace with state corrections expenses between 2005 and 2011, the current attempts to reduce state spending on the prison system could result in a shift of costs to counties.

Counties may also need to reassess their programs and services for jail inmates and to address the risks related to reoffending in their changing jail population. Several new state laws redirect nonviolent drug offenders to jail instead of prison; therefore, county jails may see an increase in the population with substance abuse issues. These changes may challenge the capacity of counties to adequately provide treatment and related services to inmates with drug problems.

Additionally, counties may need to examine the availability of resources for addressing the needs of the jail population after release, during a period of time known as reentry. The reentry period is a vulnerable time for recently released inmates, and the likelihood of reoffending is higher if they are not receiving treatment for mental health or drug problems, not working or do not have a reliable housing situation.

Sentencing law changes can affect county probation and community corrections services. Counties in 16 states provide at least some funding for probation, whether in the form of office space, operating costs or specific services or programs.

If any of these states enact changes to sentencing laws that place offenders on probation instead of jail or prison, their counties may have to increase their spending for community corrections. The impact on counties may also be greater in states that explicitly focus on community corrections as a solution to reduce the prison population.

Counties have long had an integral role in the administration of justice and the corrections system. Despite the challenges that counties may face from state sentencing changes, the entire U.S. correctional system can benefit from critically assessing and planning for the needs of the jail population and those that come into contact with the county justice system. Counties are in a strong position to continue leading the way in developing strategies and leveraging resources that not only assist in managing the county corrections population but also improve public safety.

NACo's Criminal Justice Programs provide technical assistance to counties on a range of issues addressing local corrections systems from pre-trial services to local reentry initiatives. These programs are dedicated to assisting counties with exploring opportunities for efficient and effective use of public dollars. Visit


Prison vs. Jails

The corrections system includes state prisons and county jails. "Prison" and "jail," however, are not interchangeable terms. Prisons are state-operated correctional facilities that house only individuals convicted of felonies and receive a sentence of at least one year. Jails are locally operated facilities, most often by counties, that hold individuals who are awaiting trial and confine individuals convicted of crimes and sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not more than one year (However, some county jails in Pennsylvania are called county prisons). According to U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics data, more than 60 percent of jail inmates in the U.S. were awaiting trial on June 30, 2013.


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