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The overcrowding in California’s prisons has captured public attention but the counties’ jails also are in dire shape. At least 20 counties have court-ordered inmate-population limits, and dwindling dollars are curbing the ability of the counties to house some 76,000 inmates.

The Schwarzenegger administration, with the federal courts breathing down its neck, wants to save money as well as reduce prison overcrowding. One plan, already under way, will cut the 167,000-inmate population by more than a fourth over the next few years by diverting some incoming, non-violent offenders to other programs, expanding parole and probation, freeing elderly inmates earlier and boosting threshold for some felonies, such as more than doubling the value of felony grand theft to $950.

But three dozen local lockups across the state are operating under state or federal court orders to curb overcrowding, according to February 2009 data compiled by the California State Sheriffs Association. That means jails will be ill-equipped to handle a portion – perhaps half — of the estimated 42,000 releases, including 12,000 drug offenders, or diversions that may be coming their way.

If the Schwarzenegger administration can save $1 billion or more through releases and diversions, the impact on local detention will be profound, experts say.

“What’s going to happen is that as the state begins to reduce the prison population, there will be more inmates on unsupervised release or a very limited supervision release. Offenders being what they are, when they get out, there’s a certainty that 70 percent to 75 percent will re-offend. That creates fresh charges, which puts them directly back into the county jails. They (sheriffs) may have to book and release them,” said Jim Denney, CSSA’s executive director.

“Of course, for any serious offender, a homicide or a rape, they would definitely make room, but that means somebody else is going to have to go out the door,” added Denney, a 36-year law enforcement veteran and the former sheriff of Sutter County.

Overcrowded jails are not new. Since the 1980s, as lawmakers and governors, and voters — approved stricter sentencing for crimes, the inmate population swelled and prison construction expanded to meet the demand. The number of state prisons has tripled in 25 years. There is a need for some $6 billion worth of new jail construction, remodeling and projects, according to the counties. 

County lockups large and small face overcrowding problems.

In San Diego  County, eight facilities, including the central jail, operate under a court-ordered cap, as does Fresno County’s main jail, two annexes and a satellite facility. In Butte County, the jail is ordered to contain no more than 90 percent of its rated capacity of 614. In El Dorado County, the Lake Tahoe jail and the jail in Placerville are under court order. Kern County has four facilities under court order, as does Placer County, with two. Three Sacramento facilities, including the county’s main jail, have a court-ordered limit.

Jail expansion never kept pace with prisons, invariably because other local projects took priority in funding. Jails are the first step of custody for offenders, accused offenders, parole and probation violators, parties to domestic disputes, and more. People awaiting trial are held in jails if they can’t make bond. People who are convicted of crimes often are held in jails until transferred to state custody.
The state’s 117 jails are operated by the sheriffs in California’s 58 counties, except for two – Santa Clara and Madera – which have local correctional departments.

The funding push that animated prison construction passed the local jails by, in part because of periodic recessions, in part because public interest is limited.

The counties “have not been able to afford costly jail construction projects. There has been no stable revenue stream to pay debt service on the bonds needed to finance the renovation of existing jails and construction of much needed new jail beds…Proposition 1A was approved by the voters in November of 2004, which will stabilize local revenue and prohibit unfunded state mandates, but it does not generate significant new revenue. Consequently, the supply of local jail beds has not expanded rapidly enough to accommodate demand brought on by population and crime growth,” said a 2006 CSSA report.

The California State Association of Counties agreed.

“A prisoner release order would shift costs and responsibility for housing and providing services to these state prisoners from the state to the counties that will have to absorb this population,” CSAC legal writers said earlier this year. “This shifting of costs and responsibility has the potential to overwhelm already overburdened systems, jeopardize quality of care and threaten public safety in the affected communities.”

For more, visit the Capitol Weekly Web site.