Jail Shift Makes Waves in California


Counties Forced to Take on State Inmates Release Their Low-Level Offenders, Chafing Some Residents

By VAUHINI VARA

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Michal Czerwonka for The Wall Street Journal

Inmates are shown in the minimum-facility yard of the Lerdo Detention Facility in Bakersfield.

 

BAKERSFIELD, Calif.—Under a court order to ease overcrowding in state prisons, California moved last year to divert thousands of lower-level offenders to local jails. Now the fallout from that shift is reverberating through several sections of the state, including this area north of Los Angeles.

In Kern County, Sheriff Donny Youngblood’s jail was so near capacity this spring that he had to release hundreds of inmates—monitoring them with electronic devices or assigning them to do supervised labor such as working as janitors.

But the sheriff’s approach drew criticism when a man convicted of driving under the influence, who also had several prior convictions, was released after serving a few months of his six-year sentence and when local news reports documented an increase in burglaries this year.

Mr. Youngblood says he understands the outcry. “It’s a put-’em-in-custody kind of county—we don’t have a lot of sympathy for people who commit crimes,” he said.

California’s 58 counties have varied widely in how they manage the inmate shift, known as realignment. Residents in some areas, such as San Francisco, generally have embraced seeking alternatives to incarceration. But as Kern and other counties only begin to experiment with new methods, local residents have protested that people are being let out of jail too early.

“I call it ‘justice by geography,’ depending on where you get arrested,” said Barry Krisberg, a criminal-justice expert at the University of California, Berkeley.

The total population in the state’s 33 prisons has fallen by 16% to 120,946 from 144,138 in late September 2011—days before realignment began, according to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

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Under realignment, people who would have gone to state prison for low-level crimes in the past will now be kept under county supervision. Low-level crimes range from drug sales to deadly hit-and-run accidents, under the state’s classifications. The counties get state money to cover the added costs, and sheriffs are encouraged to avoid overcrowding in their own jails by finding alternatives to locking people up.

Continue Reading @ WSJ

 

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