More than a 175,000 people have been sentenced to county jails instead of state prisons in the last eight years because of sweeping changes to California’s justice system, according to an analysis of state data by The Marshall Project. The reforms were intended to ease prison overcrowding — and they have.
But the changes were also supposed to help people convicted of nonviolent crimes, by letting them serve their sentences close to home in county jails with lots of education and training programs.
It hasn’t worked out that way in some urban counties. Jails built to hold people for days or weeks — awaiting trial or serving short sentences for petty crimes — have strained to handle long-term inmates, many with chronic medical and mental health problems and histories of violence.
Statewide, assaults on jailers increased almost 90% from 2010, the year before prison downsizing began, to 2017, the most recent year for which there is complete data. Mental health cases, which had been declining in jails, have risen. County spending on medicine for inmates has jumped (to almost $64 million in 2017 from $38 million in 2010), and the cost of psychotropic medication has recently surged. Legal challenges over inmate treatment have expanded to about a dozen county lockups.
Deaths in California jails jumped by 26% in the years after they started receiving long-term inmates, peaking at 153 in 2014 before falling to 133 in 2017. That year, California had 17.7 deaths per 10,000 inmates; Texas, which has the second largest jail population, had 13.2.
Problems have been particularly acute in counties with old facilities, tight budgets and a lot of long-term inmates, including Sacramento, San Bernardino, Fresno and San Diego, which had a spate of suicides this spring. Los Angeles County has had to deal with the largest number of these inmates: 45,000, or about a quarter of the total since 2010.
For these counties, California’s prison changes have been “a budget buster,” said Mike Brady, a former official with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation who now works as a consultant. The jails now “have serious mental illnesses, violence. They’ve got gang issues. They’ve got developmental disabilities. They’ve got physical disabilities. They’ve got to change their whole physical plant. It’s a phenomenal expense.”
California’s experiment in prison downsizing has implications for states across the country as they try to cut the size of their prison systems. Some, like Texas, are tackling the issue because of the high cost of locking people up, while others, like Alabama, are under pressure to relieve overcrowding and violence. And in many regions, voters are concluding that prison populations, which include disproportionate numbers of people of color, reflect outdated “tough-on-crime” policies.
For such states, “California is a pretty remarkable study,” says James Austin, a corrections expert who has examined California prisons and jails. “The whole system has dropped about 220,000 people” without the surge in crime many critics feared.
Some counties have coped well with the changes. In wealthy Silicon Valley, governments have poured cash into fixing up their jails. They have also spent a lot on programs to keep people out of jail in the first place, and to help those who are incarcerated make a successful return to their communities.
Others, such as Humboldt County, a rural area along the rugged coastline about 300 miles north of San Francisco, say they have relatively few long-term inmates because judges and prosecutors have changed their sentencing practices to allow people to serve more of their time in the community.
“One of the things that made us successful is we’ve been fortunate not to have some of the longer sentences that some other counties have had,” said Capt. Duane Christian, who leads the Humboldt County Correctional Facility.
Overall, the consequences for county jails aren’t easy to measure. No state agency collects data that could answer important questions, such as what percentage of a county’s inmates are there because of the new measures and whether some jails hold an outsized number of inmates with long sentences.
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Contributed by Sean Walton of The Daily Sheeple.