In a policy called realignment the State of California has begun sending lower-level offenders to county jails rather than state prisons. The move is intended to reduce overcrowding in the state prison system. The policy was initiated last October. Already the state prison population has dropped over 16% from 144,000 at its peak to 120,000 now. However to meet the demands of the U.S. Supreme Court another reduction of 10,000 must be achieved by next June.
County jails were built to house offenders for less than a year. The activities, work programs and other activities found in state prisons for the most part do not exist in these county jails. Costs for food are higher than in state facilities as well.
Counties as well as the state face tight budgets and those budgets are being further strained by an influx of new offenders into their jails. Fresno County surrounding the city of Fresno is adding 864 beds. The jail is so overcrowded that it is often forced to release inmates early because the jail population must be reduced when the jail exceeds capacity.
The state does provide funds to compensate for extra costs. The county has discretion as to how to use these funds and deal with the new offenders. Some liberal counties use the money on alternatives to incarceration but others simply enlarge their capacity to hold more prisoners in jail.
Some critics claim that there is an overemphasis on jails in many counties. In Fresno less than one million of 20 million received from the state is used for a drug rehabilitation program. However conservative opinion often holds sway. Debbie Poochigian
of the Board of Supervisors said.
“Some people, you’re not going to change their behavior until they’re incarcerated and they have to pay the consequences..I believe we’re keeping our community safer because they’re not out there looking for their next victim.”
There have been many criticisms of the realignment program. Low risk offenders
in the state prisons are used for fighting fires. However those prisoners are now being transferred out to county jails decreasing the number available for fighting fires.
Already Fresno county has used 40% of its state money to reopen more jail space that had been closed because of budget cuts. If Fresno hasn't enough space it will transfer prisoners to other county or private jails.
In just the first quarter of this year the population in county jails in California has risen 4%. However many in the county jails are simply awaiting trial. If pretrial procedures were quicker then the population of the county jails could be reduced. Many of those charged are in jail because they are poor and cannot pay bail. Those awaiting trial could be subject to electronic monitoring or day reporting. However no official wants to be seen as soft on crime especially elected officials.
Violence among inmates has increased since the realignment policy. Sgt. Terry Barnes believes that this may in part be caused by the inmates' realization that they may spend years in a jail with very few amenities of the type they enjoyed in state prisons.
Not surprisingly some are advocating greater use of private jails. This provides new areas for private capital investment and proponents argue that it would be cheaper. The U.S. is number one globally in incarcerating its citizens
, A New York times article points out:
The United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population. But it has almost a quarter of the world's prisoners.
Given the seemingly overwhelming opinion in the U.S. that prison is the proper punishment for most crimes it is unlikely that the problem of prison overcrowding will be solved by repealing the three strikes law
or any decriminalization of drug use even marijuana.