Inmate Shift Quickly Fills Jails

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon is taking a far different approach in a county that has seen no great influx of inmates.

View Comments (
)
|
Email
|
Print

    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    There may be no room in the inn for inmates come Christmas Eve.

    Two months into California's most far-reaching public safety realignment in decades, some counties are seeing a higher-than-expected influx of inmates who could crowd jails to the breaking point much earlier than expected.

             State corrections officials say it is too soon to panic and expect the numbers to even out after an initial surge.
     
           But reality is settling in as local law enforcement agencies struggle to contain criminals with a history of violence, substance abuse and mental illness who previously would have been tucked away in state prisons.
     
           Los Angeles County had said its more than 22,000 jail beds could be full by Christmas, although officials now have pushed the projection back by several months. Officials in the state's most populous county are eying early release of less serious offenders and considering alternatives to jail, such as tracking criminals with GPS-linked ankle bracelets.
     
           In Orange County, more than 60 detainees recently had to sleep on the jail floor until beds could be made available. That evokes recent images from state prisons, which were so overcrowded that inmates were housed in three-tier bunk beds in gymnasiums and day rooms.
     
           Fresno County no longer will incarcerate parole violators to keep from crowding its 2,427-bed jail. Parolees could still go to jail if they commit new crimes, but not for violating parole conditions.
     
           The changes are the result of a law that took effect Oct. 1 that shifts responsibility for thousands of lower-level criminals from the state to local jurisdictions. Only defendants convicted after that date are affected.
     
           Judges no longer can send offenders to state prison for crimes such as auto theft, burglary, grand theft and drug possession for sale. Conrad Murray, convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of singer Michael Jackson, will serve his four-year sentence in Los Angeles County jail, where his sentence will automatically be cut in half due to state law.
     
           Inmates currently in state prison will complete their full sentences there, but parole violators who previously would have been returned to state prison now can only be incarcerated in county jails.
     
           The law was driven by the state's budget deficit and a federal court order, recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, requiring California to reduce its prison population by 33,000 inmates as a way to improve medical care.
     
           ``We anticipated some bumps in the road, and there have been,'' said Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin, president of the California State Sheriffs' Association.
     
           He said the unexpected increase in the number of convicts coming to county jails has been the biggest problem to date.
     
           The surge in some counties appears to be ``a bubble'' created because defense attorneys delayed sentencings until after the new law took effect so their clients would do their time in county jails instead of state prisons, said Dana Toyama, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The department projects the rate will level off in the coming months, she said.
     
           If the trend continues, however, local law enforcement officials may have to lobby state legislators not only for more money but to shift some crimes back under state jurisdiction so offenders would again go to state prison, Fresno County Chief Probation Officer Linda Penner said.
     
           ``It was a massive overhaul of a very large system,'' said Penner, who is president of the Chief Probation Officers Association of California. ``I think we have to watch it for a while before we can go in and ask for legislative change.''
     
           The early trends and responses are as varied as California's 58 counties, each of which is taking a different approach under a law designed to give local jurisdictions more flexibility and responsibility for their own wrongdoers.
     
           Counties have been given a total of $400 million to help pay their increased costs, and the state has set aside $603 million to help them build more jails. It also is giving cities and counties $490 million in other assorted law enforcement grants.
     
           In Los Angeles County, Assistant Sheriff Cecil Rhambo Jr. said in late October that the county's more than 22,000 jail beds might be full by Christmas. But department spokesman Steve Whitmore said the jails now are expected to reach capacity next spring or summer. The county is using some of the money it received from the state to hire more deputies, which will let the county accommodate more inmates, Whitmore said.
     
           Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, a Republican, has been one of the most outspoken critics of the law, which was sought by Gov. Jerry Brown and approved by the Democrats who control the Legislature. He predicts an increase in crime as a result.
     
           Cooley said his attorneys have been trained to comb offenders' criminal histories, searching for factors that would enhance the charges against them and thus, if convicted, send them to state prison instead of county jail.
     
           ``We will look for every way around this that is ethical, honest, legitimate and lawful,'' Cooley said. ``We are going to give the courts the option to send them to `the joint' if it's appropriate.''
     
           San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon is taking a far different approach in a county that has seen no great influx of inmates. He has proposed that the county Board of Supervisors create a local sentencing commission that would help determine punishment based on criminals' risk to public safety.
     
           About 70 percent of the jail population in San Francisco and Los Angeles County is awaiting trial, and many of the detainees could be safety released using alternatives such as GPS tracking, he said. That would free jail space for those who have been convicted of more serious offenses.
     
           ``We are going to be doing business differently, but I don't think that is necessarily a bad thing,'' Gascon said. ``The reality is that if you look at the way we have incarcerated people and the recidivism rate, we haven't been doing a very good job.''
     
           Currently, about seven of every 10 inmates paroled statewide quickly commit a new crime, a recidivism rate far above the national average.
     
           The shift is creating other challenges for local authorities.
     
           ``The common denominator to all these folks is an addiction to methamphetamine,'' Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson said of the inmates in his county who previously would have gone to state prisons. ``That creates the challenges in getting them the services they need.''
     
           Local officials also are dealing with dangerous criminals despite promises from state lawmakers that they would only face those convicted of non-serious, nonviolent and non-sex offenders.
     
           ``They are a large number, maybe even a majority, that have serious and violent offenses in their rap sheets,'' even if their current offense is relatively minor, said Sacramento County Chief Probation Officer Don Meyer.
     
           Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims announced last week that her jail will no longer accept parole violators because of the surge in inmates there, forcing state parole agents to find other punishments for those who don't follow the rules.
     
           So far, her jail is less crowded than it was before the state's realignment because Mims used state funding to open 432 minimum security jail beds. Her office also is working with county probation officers and local police departments to create teams that will do frequent checks on criminals placed on community supervision.
     
           Orange County Assistant Sheriff Mike James said the jail still has 900 empty beds but doesn't have the staff to manage the unexpected influx. Nearly 70 detainees were forced to sleep on the floor until beds could be made available.
     
           ``Long-term, if the numbers hold out to be true, you'll be full and then difficult decisions will have to be made about who stays in and who gets released,'' James said.