California’s historic shift on prisons

August 7, 2012

California is undergoing an historic shift as it moves its incarcerated from state prisons to county jails. This comes in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that mandated a reduction in the state’s prison population, given the inadequate healthcare being provided. State legislation AB 109 and 111 were passed to implement this move:

AB 109 changes the law to realign certain responsibilities for lower level offenders, adult parolees and juvenile offenders from state to local jurisdictions. AB 109 will give local law enforcement the right and the ability to manage offenders in smarter and cost-effective ways.

The New York Times has a piece that includes reactions from current and former inmates on the shift:

Built for stays shorter than one year, the [county] jail does not offer the kind of activities, work programs and amenities found in most prisons. “You’re stuck in a little cell,” Mr. Diaz said, while prisons with outdoor space provide plenty of “yard time.” Soup costs $1 here, compared with 30 cents at the canteen at Coalinga, which Mr. Diaz said he left in 2005. “My homie just got out a couple of months ago,” he said, “and the canteen went up only, like, 3 cents, 4 cents.” …

…Violence among inmates has risen since the policy shift, Sgt. Terry Barnes said, attributing it to inmates’ realization that they might spend years in a place with few of the activities and amenities they enjoyed in prison.

“They’re very frustrated with the idea that this is it,” said Sergeant Barnes, a corrections officer who has worked at the jail for 24 years.

What the Times is suggesting might actually be a positive deterrent to crime if would-be felons fear having to spend time in a stripped-down jail with no activities.

California is also experimenting with a second, equally profound change in its treatment of certain classes of offenders by delegating some punishment to the communities where they committed crimes. The Public Policy Institute of California lays out the details:

Counties will need to be more economical than the state has been:

The Department of Finance proposes to pay counties $25,000 per full-time prisoner per year, plus another 10 percent or so for treatment or alternative custody arrangements, where warranted. This is on par with what some counties already receive for housing felons in their local jails and amounts to about half of what the state currently spends on the average prisoner. To accommodate the new influx, counties will need to employ a mix of incarceration and other, lower-cost sanctions and supervision. They may also need shorter lock-up periods than the state has been employing.

Counties have differing jail capacities:

All counties in California except Alpine County have their own jail facilities. The smallest capacity is in Sierra County, which has one jail built to hold 14 inmates, and the largest is in Los Angeles, with multiple facilities for a total of 13,688 inmates. In all, the state’s 58 counties have a jail capacity of around 76,000.

And differing jail populations:

In 2011, the state’s county jails had an average daily population of about 71,000. In the 12 months before realignment was implemented, 14 counties maintained average daily populations in their jails that exceeded their capacities, and 32 counties released inmates because of a lack of capacity. As of February 2012, 17 counties were operating under court orders limiting the number of inmates in their jails. Counties that consistently run their jails under capacity often rent out space to state or federal corrections agencies, so the number of available jail beds at the county level is difficult to estimate.

Some counties are focusing on alternatives to incarceration:

Since not all counties will be able to simply incarcerate all of their incoming felons, some jurisdictions are putting resources into alternative sanctions. These include day reporting centers and home detention with GPS monitoring. For parole and probation violators, return to state prison is no longer an option, so counties will rely on alternatives such as “flash incarceration” (sending violators to jail for a few days at a time), drug abuse treatment, work release, education, and community-based residential programs.

The National Radio Project has a very interesting program that links the growth of the California state prison system to the powerful California Correctional and Peace Officers Association and its influence in the political process:

Change is afoot in the California incarceration system. Stay tuned.

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