Is sending inmates to county jail the solution to state prison overcrowding? In Los Angeles and much of the rest of California, the answer is no.
As part of a reduction of California’s prison population ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court last week, counties are likely to be asked to accept thousands of new inmates. Los Angeles, where one-third of the state’s prisoners originate, could have to take up to 10,000 inmates.
But L.A.’s largest jail has a long history of overcrowding, unsanitary and unsafe conditions, and inadequate medical care for inmates. Many of the same criminal justice advocates who supported the lawsuit that led to the Supreme Court ruling are now warning that Los Angeles and other local jurisdictions are unprepared to deal with the aftermath of this landmark legal victory.
The 5-to-4 ruling held that overcrowding in the California’s 33 prisons have caused conditions that amount to “cruel and unusual punishment” in violation of the U.S. Constitution. The decision, which upheld a 2009 ruling by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, came in two consolidated class-action lawsuits dating back to 1990 that challenged the prison system’s treatment of patients with mental illness and other medical conditions.
In response to the 2009 ruling, the state had already begun reducing its prison population (from nearly 162,500 in 2006 to around143,400 this past May), in part by sending 10,000 inmates out of state. But if the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) hopes to meet the court-ordered goal—a prison population not to exceed 137.5 percent of capacity—it must cut another 33,630 prisoners over the next two years.
The Supreme Court, which did not specify how the state should makes these cuts, has asked the CDCR to present a full plan of action by June 6. The CDCR and Governor Jerry Brown are advocating for what is known as the Public Safety Realignment Plan, in which future inmates guilty of nonviolent, nonsexual, non-serious crimes would be kept in county jails instead of being sent to state prison. Brown signed legislation OK’ing the realignment plan in April, but its implementation is contingent upon a constitutional amendment guaranteeing necessary funding, which is currently being considered by the Legislature for inclusion on an upcoming ballot.
The Benefits of Realignment
Criminal justice advocates see many benefits in keeping low-level, short-sentence offenders in local jails. Staying close to home makes it easier for them to keep in touch with their families and to create reentry plans for their release—both of which help reduce recidivism.
What’s more, transporting and processing low-level inmates into state prison is costly and inefficient, especially for those serving short sentences.
“It is a long, expensive bus ride from the county jail to the prison just to just to say, ‘OK, time’s up, bye-bye,’ and return them to the streets,” says Jeanne Woodford, former San Quentin warden and former acting head of the CDCR, who recently became the executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Focus. “They have a higher recidivism rate because there is nothing thoughtful about the process.”
In 2009, 47,000 state prison inmates were serving terms of 90 days or less.
“We’ve got to stop this churning in and out of state prison. Realignment is meant to address that revolving door,” says Terry Thornton, spokesperson for the CDCR. “Offenders aren’t just the state’s responsibility, not just cities, not just counties—they are everybody’s problem.”
Passing the Buck?
But some complain that the realignment plan merely passes the buck.
“It’s kicking the can further down to the county level,” says Emily Harris with Californians United for a Responsible Budget, a coalition that advocates for reducing state inmates through prevention programs and the elimination of Three Strikes and mandatory minimum sentences. “The fear is that it will go from one big mess in one system to 58 [county] systems that will need whole new overcrowding lawsuits.”
Unlike the prisons, many county jails are operating below capacity, due to a lack of funds to fully staff and maintain them. Counties are vying for state realignment money that would allow them to open all of their jails.
But even with jails running at full capacity, counties still won’t be able to accommodate all 30,000-plus inmates being cut from the state prison system. In Kern County, for instance, which sends approximately 4,600 inmates to state prisons a year, jails are currently operating at 87.6 percent capacity. But pushing capacity to 100 percent would only add 334 beds.
Other county jail systems are already over capacity, including San Diego (at 103.6 percent), the second-largest supplier of inmates to state prisons.
In order to house inmates locally, more jails will have to be built.
“If it’s, ‘Let’s just expand county jail, let’s just hire more county sheriffs, let’s just create more space to lock people up,’ all we do is recreate the dynamic that led to the Supreme Court case,” says Craig Gilmore, co-founder of the California Prison Moratorium Project. “That’s how the state got into the problem it is in now.”
The Los Angeles Problem
Of all the counties, Los Angeles County will play the most significant role in the realignment program, since one-third, or nearly 57,000, California state prisoners originate from that area.
L.A. County jails, which house an estimated 19,500 inmates daily, have 5,000 unused beds. The Pitchess Detention Center north of Santa Clarita, for example, houses only two inmates. (Those two inmates serve to maintain the jail’s open status, to avoid any upgrades that would be required if the jail were to close and reopen.)
Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy D. Baca, whose department oversees the jail system, is welcoming the potential influx of prisoners in part because he hopes they will bring in as much as $90 million in funding from Sacramento to reopen shuttered areas of jails, invest in technology like GPS and ankle bracelets for parolees and improve education programs for inmates.
“Our proposed jail plan is solid. The plan needs funding and that is the if,” says Steve Whitmore, spokesperson for the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. “No money, no jail plan. No money, no extra beds. It is real simple.”
But according to prison watchdog groups, even with additional funding, the Los Angeles jail system will still be too crippled to handle the influx. While sections of the jails lie empty, elsewhere inmates are kept in conditions plagued with overcrowding, violence, unsanitary conditions and a lack of proper medical care.
Of particular concern is the city’s—and the nation’s—largest jail, Men’s Central Jail (MCJ), home to an average 5,000 inmates a day. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been battling the sheriff’s department since 1978, when the group successfully sued on behalf of MCJ inmates, challenging their living conditions as “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The litigation led to temporary improvements, but the jails are still not in compliance with court orders and the case remains active. In 2006, a federal judge ordered a cut in the number of inmates at Men’s Central, saying the jail’s conditions were “inconsistent with basic human values” and had “defaulted to the lowest permissible standard of care.”
Five years later, the jail remains "archaic, obsolete, dangerous, overcrowded and permeated with violence,” says Peter Eliasberg, managing attorney of the organization’s Southern California office. “The idea that the sheriff’s department is capable of dealing with an influx of new prisoners from the state is laughable.”
The ACLU receives six to seven complaints a week about unprovoked abuse, retaliation for filing complaints, sub-par mental health care and unsanitary conditions in the L.A. jails, all of which it blames in large part on overcrowding. Inmates are denied showers, outdoor recreation, and phone calls. There are plumbing leakages, poor ventilation, and dorms with more than 140 prisoners in bunk beds that are so close together that it is difficult to move between them.
Even if all the beds are made available, it is unlikely that Los Angeles would be able to handle more inmates immediately.
“That new capacity presumes keeping Men’s Central Jail open, but it is so decrepit that the whole jail needs to come down,” Gilmore says.
Meanwhile, the county says it can’t move inmates from the decrepit MCJ to empty jails like Pitchess because it’s a more expensive facility to run and it’s too costly to transport inmates 40 miles to courts in downtown Los Angeles.
In order to deal with a $128 million budget cut in the current fiscal year, the Los Angeles sheriff’s department has already decreased its jail population through incarceration alternatives such as electronic bracelet monitoring and improved education within prisons, but these measures are still not enough.
“Counties are going to be faced with a need to be able to create alternatives at the same time that there are cut backs on many other funding streams,” says San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, who was formerly an assistant police chief in Los Angeles.
“Particularly in counties like L.A. where you already have terrible overcrowding in the jails, people are going to re-offend because there isn’t going to be any meaningful community-based supervision,” Gascón says. “Those folks aren’t going to be able to go back to state prison and those jails are already packed.”
Most prison reformers argue that the state needs to come up with ways to reduce the overall inmate population through better reentry and rehabilitation programs proven to reduce recidivism as well as more prevention programs.
“If the thought is we just have to have this many people incarcerated, and if they can’t be incarcerated in the state system, they need to be in the county system,” says Eliasberg, “then we are missing a great opportunity to do some of the hard looking that other states and jurisdictions have done.”
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