In California, Non-Violent Inmates Might Transfer to County Jails

Gov. Jerry Brown’s new law aims to reduce overcrowding, but the program lacks funding support and local sheriffs fear they’ll pay the price.
by | April 6, 2011 AT 3:00 PM

With Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed renewal of tax hikes locked up in limbo, it’s hard to see the potential of the new law he signed this week to move thousands of California inmates closer to home. The bill, AB 109, aims to "realign certain responsibilities for lower level offenders, adult parolees and juvenile offenders from state to local jurisdictions," according to a news release. (Brown also signed a bill that would provide counties with more flexiblity to find funding, allowing local jails to expand, in light of AB 109).

Not to say that this new law doesn’t make sense in the grand scheme. California’s prisons are bloated beyond capacity, with 170,000 inmates filling spaces designed for less than half that amount. From 1982 to 2000, the state’s prison population grew by 500 percent, and the conditions have been so bad that in 2009, a federal three-judge panel ruled that the overcrowding violated constitutional standards for medical and mental health care. Under pressure to ease overcrowding and expand health care for inmates, Brown believes that sending relatively low-level prisoners to county jails will help address these issues and empower local law enforcement.

"For too long, the state's prison system has been a revolving door for lower-level offenders and parole violators who are released within months," Brown said in the release. "Cycling these offenders through state prisons wastes money, aggravates crowded conditions, thwarts rehabilitation and impedes local law enforcement supervision."

In different times, this legislation might have been a giant step toward the restructuring of a system that's busting at the seams. And maybe in time, it will become that. But right now, California’s funding nightmare leaves no room for this type of transfer program, which will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Brown’s original idea to acquire the bulk of the money from his tax hike extension plan has been fruitless so far. He’s still on a mission to get support, traveling from city to city to plead his budget case, but has said that if he can’t reach a deal with the GOP, he’ll be forced to take it to voters via initiative.

But resistance has come from local sheriffs and other law enforcement agencies as they grapple with funding cuts to public safety programs. They had pledged to support a realignment package as long as there was a way to pay for it. But Brown’s signature without a funding deal has led to feelings of betrayal, as sheriffs worry that counties will get stuck with the bills.

“Where does that money come from?” San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “What do I quit doing to house the state’s prisoners? Do I release other inmates?”

It’s no surprise that Republicans legislators object to Brown’s transfer bill, arguing that the increased burden on local authorities will lead sheriffs to free inmates early to make room for the newcomers who would have gone to prison. "Tell your constituents to get a dog, buy a gun and install an alarm system,” Sen. Sharon Runner, R-Lancaster told the San Francisco Chronicle. “The state of California will no longer protect you."

It would appear to be a catch-22, but Brown has said that the program won’t start without the funding support. That means only time will tell if this law has legs for the long-haul. But it’s not up for debate that the state’s prison system needs a massive overhaul. The prison system took in 47,000 inmates last year who were parole violators sentenced to 90 days or less, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Matt Cate told the Los Angeles Times. County jails are not only less expensive, but they also don’t have the complex intake process, which can take months and costs taxpayers more.

Under the law, Brown said, local law enforcement can manage offenders in smarter ways that cost less. Among other things, AB 109 prohibits inmates currently in state prison from getting out early and states that all felons convicted of a serious or violent offense (including sex offenders and child molesters) will go to state prison.

Like most matters in California these days, this program’s potential is smeared in the red ink of the state’s budget crisis, a stark reminder that the state can’t move into the future without first absolving the offenses of its past and present.