California counties are housing more than 1,100 inmates on long-term sentences in jails designed for stays of a year or less, according to the first report detailing the growth in that population under Gov. Jerry Brown's criminal justice realignment strategy.
The oversight of so many long-term inmates is presenting challenges for county sheriffs, especially with the number expected to grow markedly in the years ahead. In addition to finding adequate space to house the new population, the sheriffs also must provide the inmates with education, treatment programs, rehabilitation services and recreation, which adds to their costs.
Vehicle theft, drug trafficking, receiving stolen property, identity theft and commercial burglary were the most common crimes for jail inmates who were sentenced to 5 to 10 years in county jails, according to the report, which was obtained by The Associated Press before its public release.
The report, covering all but six of the state's 58 counties, was done by the California State Sheriffs' Association and sent to the governor's administration and Legislature.
"We are not set up to house inmates for this period of time," said Nick Warner, the association's legislative director. "They're living in conditions that they're not designed to stay in for this long."
The Los Angeles County Jail is holding 35 percent of all long-term inmates. Statewide, 44 inmates already have been sentenced to more than a decade in local jails, with one Los Angeles County man serving a 43-year term for trafficking large amounts of drugs.
As of Monday, the association found that 1,153 inmates in county jails were sentenced to at least five years. Drug trafficking resulted in most of the sentences topping a decade, although a Riverside County inmate is serving nearly 13 years for felony child abuse and a Solano County inmate is serving more than 10 years as a serial thief.
The association started with inmates whose formal sentences are at least five years because most will actually be released after serving less than that. With time off for good behavior, for example, an inmate serving a five-year sentence can be released in about 2 ½ years.
The number of long-term inmates in local jails will keep growing as the state diverts more lower-level criminals from state prisons to comply with the governor's realignment law and federal court orders to reduce the population in the state's 33 adult prisons.
Before lawmakers approved Brown's law enforcement realignment in 2011, the only prisoner who might spend more than a year in a county jail would be someone awaiting trial in a complicated case such as murder.
While the number of long-term inmates represents less than 2 percent of the 77,000 prisoners who can be housed in California's 58 county jails, sheriffs say they command a disproportionate share of money and attention.
Many sheriffs would like to return their long-term inmates to state prisons, Warner said, although he acknowledged that is not likely as long as the state is trying to relieve prison crowding.
"It's a really tough issue to resolve," Warner said. "There are some inmates who don't belong in county jails for this period of time."
Jeffrey Callison, a spokesman for the state Department Corrections and Rehabilitation, acknowledged that sheriffs need a different type of facility to handle long-term inmates, but he noted that state lawmakers authorized $500 million last year to help counties renovate jails and add space for treating inmates.
"That's the kind of construction you're seeing already," Callison said. "The jails are getting modernized. They're able to offer more programs to their inmates."
Lawmakers have approved $1.2 billion in bonds for building new jails, many of which are under construction. Counties are getting $865 million in operating money through the state this fiscal year, with their allocation budgeted to exceed $1 billion next year.
Callison said the state also is discussing with counties ways in which they can better accommodate their long-term inmates, including contracting with outside facilities that are better designed to handle that population.
He said judges also can sentence inmates to split sentences that reduce jail time while requiring that released felons are supervised in the community.
"The U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to dramatically reduce its prison population. Rather than release prisoners early, the state is complying through realignment," Elizabeth Ashford, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in an emailed statement.
She said the state will keep helping counties as they implement the policy.