By Magnus Lofstrom, Brandon Martin.

Almost three years after California’s public safety realignment took effect, county sheriffs have few options for handling jail populations that are approaching historical highs reached in 2007. To help address these capacity challenges and responsibilities, the legislature recently passed SB 863, which dedicated $500 million to county jail construction. This is in addition to the $1.7 billion provided through two previous measures: AB 900 in 2007 and SB 1022 in 2012. Overall, these three construction programs will add more than 13,000 jail beds across the state. However, given projected growth in the overall population—and if there are no new policies and practices that reduce incarceration—this investment in county jails will probably be insufficient to meet the state’s long term needs.

After realignment began in October 2011, the number of inmates in state prisons decreased quickly and substantially, as intended. But the prison population is still too large to meet the federal mandate and has recently started to increase somewhat. In that same period, the county jail population has increased by about 11,000 inmates. Because relying solely on expanding jail and prison capacity to handle future pressures would be very costly and would have a limited crime preventive effect, serious consideration should be given to sentencing reform. Conversations about sentencing changes are ongoing in Sacramento and an initiative reducing the penalty for certain property and drug offenses (Proposition 47) is on the November ballot.

As county sheriffs wait for long-term and sustainable solutions to the incarceration problem, they must handle the growing and fluctuating demand for jail beds. This is particularly true in the 19 counties facing court-ordered jail population caps. Releasing inmates early because of space constraints is nothing new for sheriffs. In fact, data from the Board of State and Community Corrections Jail Profile Survey show that the current level of about 13,000 of these releases statewide per month is well short of the highs of 16,000–17,000 reached in 2007.

Interestingly, these data also show that although the jail population continues to creep up, the number of monthly early releases increased but recently appears to have plateaued. After reaching a post-realignment high of 14,553 in August 2012, early releases declined to a monthly average of roughly 12,900. In other words, the data does not indicate a recent surge in the number of releases and they have certainly not approached the 17,000 level recently reported in the media.

However, these releases do raise public safety concerns. The leveling off of early releases despite the growing demand for jail beds suggests that sheriffs share these concerns. The extent to which early releases jeopardize public safety depends not only on the number of inmates released but on which ones are now spending time on the streets instead of in jail. There is no widely available information about how, and more importantly whether, sheriffs effectively identify and release the lowest risk inmates. Taking steps to assess these decisions would help ensure that future releases protect public safety.

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Originally posted at the Public Policy Institute of California.