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California: Commission Recommends Reforms for Jail Overcrowding, Sentencing

California: Commission Recommends Reforms for Jail Overcrowding, Sentencing

by Michael Brodheim

In a May 2013 letter to the Governor and to members of the state legislature, Jonathan Shapiro, Chairman of the Little Hoover Commission, addressed problems of jail overcrowding and recommended changes that the commission believes will help ensure that state resources—money and cells—are used more efficiently, without endangering public safety.

The letter began by noting that the extent of jail overcrowding has resulted in more and more county sheriffs making decisions that traditionally have been made by judges – decisions driven by the need to free up bed space for increasing numbers of detainees. While not a new problem, jail overcrowding has been exacerbated by Governor Brown’s response to a federal court order to reduce California’s prison population. [See PLN article discussing Supreme Court’s Brown V. Plata decision]

The Governor’s response was to enact legislation, referred to as realignment, reducing the number of convicted felons eligible for incarceration in prison. While realignment encourages counties to increase the use of diversion programs, most counties have opted instead to incarcerate at the local level those convicted felons who formerly would have been incarcerated in state prison. The result: beds in facilities designed for short sentences and pre-trail detentions are increasingly tied up by convicted felons serving lengthy sentences; more than 1,100 now serve 5 to 10 year sentences.

With limited bed space, sheriffs in 17 counties now routinely release parole violators and convicted offenders before the expiration of their sentences. In Fresno County, 40 to 60 offenders (convicted as well as non-sentenced) are released early every day. In some 20 counties, sheriffs involve a policy of automatically releasing low-bail pre-trail detainees to keep the jail population from exceeding its cap.

The commission expressed concerns that (1) county practices were leading to disparate treatment of both pre-trail detainees and convicted felons; and (2) early releases were occurring (usually) without benefit of proven risk assessment instruments.

The commission made four recommendations. First, the state should establish standards by which it can gauge the extent to which counties are (un)successfully implementing realignment; and it should incentivize the use of best practices. Second, the use of validated risk/needs assessments should be mandated so as to minimize the risk to public safety from early-release decisions. Third, the legislature should set criteria for setting bail schedules (which now “vary widely” for similar crimes). And fourth, the state should consider wide-ranging sentencing reform, because sentencing disparity has likely increased under realignment, because jails were not designed for long-term incarceration, and because “the legacy of unexamined tough-on-crime sentencing laws will be chronic overcrowding” in jails and prisons.

Source: Little Hoover Commission, letter to Governor and Legislature, May 30, 2013.

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