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August 6, 2012

Notable report on "decarceration laboratory" taking place in California

Today's New York Times has this interesting new article, headlined "In California, County Jails Face Bigger Load."  The piece discusses how one big county in the largest state in the US has been responding to the Plata ruling, which has required California to reduce its prison populations to remedy  the Eighth Amendment problems created by severe overcrowding.  Here is an excerpt:

Ordered by the United States Supreme Court to reduce severe overcrowding in its prisons, California began redirecting low-level offenders to local jails last October in a shift called realignment. Its prison population, the nation’s largest, has since fallen by more than 16 percent to 120,000 from 144,000; it must be reduced to 110,000 by next June.

Counties with already tight budgets are scrambling to house the influx of newcomers in facilities that were never designed to accommodate inmates serving long sentences, like a man who began serving 15 years for fraud recently in the Fresno jail.

Fresno County — a sprawling agricultural area surrounding the city, which is also facing financial problems and became a punch line for Conan O’Brien recently — is adding 864 beds to its chronically overcrowded jail. Under a longstanding federal consent decree that requires the Sheriff’s Department to release inmates when the jail reaches capacity, 40 to 60 people are let go early every day.

In a move watched by other states also facing prison overcrowding, California is handing its 58 counties money and leeway to decide how to handle the new arrivals. Liberal communities like San Francisco are using a greater share of the state money on programs and alternatives to incarceration. But most counties, particularly here in the conservative Central Valley, have focused on building jail capacity.

That troubles organizations on both sides of the political spectrum. Sheriff Keith Royal of Nevada County, the president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, said members were worried about their capacity to provide “adequate treatment” in jails and about “litigation at the location level.” The American Civil Liberties Union warned that instead of making fundamental improvements to the criminal justice system, many counties risked simply repeating the state’s mistakes by reflexively putting people behind bars....

Allen Hopper, a lawyer with the A.C.L.U. who co-wrote a study on the shift to jails, said the population at county jails could be significantly reduced by overhauling pretrial procedures. Many inmates, who present no risk, remain in jail simply because they cannot afford bail, he said, adding that alternatives like electronic monitoring and day reporting could free up jail space and save counties money.

But in counties where elected officials are afraid of appearing soft on crime, such alternatives are particularly sensitive. “Everything is political,” said Sheriff Margaret Mims of Fresno County. Sheriff Mims said she had become “less optimistic” about the shift to jails because of rising crime in the county, including burglaries and car thefts. Though law enforcement officials acknowledge that rising crime cannot be linked directly to the realignment policy, they say people engaging in nonviolent offenses like property crime no longer fear being sent to prison.

Despite Fresno County’s conservative attitude toward crime, the policy shift has fueled a debate about alternatives to incarceration by grouping various agencies in the committee overseeing the change, said Emma Hughes, a criminologist at California State University, Fresno, who is working as a consultant for the county.

Linda Penner, the chief probation officer and chairwoman of the realignment committee, said that having secured money to reopen two jail floors, the committee had the political room to approve the $848,000 for the rehabilitation program. “Do I think we’re all getting on the same page in reckoning with the fact that we have to create alternatives to detention?” she said. “Yes.”

This piece, and other like reports on what has been going on in California over the past year since the Plata ruling, confirms my belief that it will likely take a lot of time and a lot of sophisticated reseach before we will be able to reach any confident conclusions concerning the true impact of the Plata ruling and the ways in which California's political and legal system has responded.

August 6, 2012 at 08:05 AM | Permalink

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Comments

at least this bit of stupidity will NOT happen in florida since i think it's illegal to even keep a state prisoner in a local jail for longer than 1 year!

i've seen sentences of 1 year and 1 day happen JUST to make sure they CAN'T be kept in the local jail!

Posted by: rodsmith | Aug 6, 2012 10:23:24 PM

Rod,

But California changed their laws in order to enact re-alignment. What's to say that the FL legislature would not do the same if faced with similar court orders?

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Aug 7, 2012 10:34:20 AM

hmm maybe that it was in the record that got the law put in at the time. those very problems. Can't force the local's to pay to house STATE inmates! Plus unlike the state prisons which for some reason don't have to follow the same laws local jails do. They have max capacity rules they MUST follow! or they lose their certificate to operate and can be sued!

and think you need to ask the fucktards at captcha what the hell they are doing! their stuff is getting past silly with some of the images they demand someone try and decipher!

Posted by: rodsmith | Aug 7, 2012 4:17:12 PM

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