New Laws Lead to Overcrowded Jails

New legislation in California has caused jails throughout Los Angeles and other areas to take on an influx of detainees, creating problems in an already overcrowded system. In a rearrangement of inmate assignment, thousands of criminals are now remaining in local jail cells instead of prison, where they would have ended up before the recent laws were passed. The laws, enacted October 1, 2011, have had ripple effects throughout the system.

Riverside County, in the Inland Empire east of L.A., is especially feeling the brunt of this new legislation. The number of new inmates in Riverside County jails jumped to about 200 inmates per month. To compensate, jails have been forced to release hundreds of inmates before the end of their sentences. Sheriffs and deputies have carried the burden of deciding which criminals are the least-dangerous offenders. Over the past five months, 1,500 inmates have been prematurely discharged.

This prison restructuring is part of Governor Jerry Brown’s overall plan to shift financial responsibility for necessary services away from the state, and into the hands of local government. Before, felons and other criminals sentenced to several years or more would serve their time in prison. Now, convicts may spend decades in county jails.

While the plan did not include any instructions for how the counties should handle the influx, early release has emerged as a byproduct while local governments are left scrambling for solutions.

As the latest data is not yet available, the full impact of the new legislation remains unclear. The number of early releases for 2012 is not known, but sheriffs say they have seen the numbers rise firsthand.

One concern is that jailhouse officials may not be able to tell which inmates are the most dangerous, and may be releasing potential threats to society. However, it will likely take at least a year to gage any rise in crime that may result from this prison restructuring.

The situation is forcing authorities to look into alternatives to incarceration, and shift some inmates into other forms of jailing, such as house arrest and work release. In San Bernardino, more than 4,000 inmates have been assigned to these types of sentences instead of traditional jail.

Orange County has handled the restructuring better than other counties. They reopened their women’s jail facility and doubled their number of work release inmates. They are also considering fitting pre-trial defendants with GPS devices instead of housing them in jail.