California is in the midst of reducing its state prison inmate population to no more than 137.5 percent of capacity, the first step to address what was deemed inhumane overcrowded conditions. Much of the overcrowding in state prisons has been due to offenders violating conditions of their parole and automatically being sent back to prison. One of the programs undertaken has been transferring parole supervision of low level, non-violent, non-sex offenders to county probation departments. While still more than 5,400 inmates away from the desired benchmark, the population has been reduced and overcrowding has been eased somewhat in many of the state’s prisons.
However, the efforts seem to be more of an accounting trick.
A little discussed loophole in the mandate concerns how the reduction occurs. The court order requires that the overcrowding has to be reduced overall, but there seems to be some leeway regarding the percentage as to individual facilities. So while some of the more notable facilities have seen a reduction, many are still well above the desired capacity.
The most overcrowded are women’s facilities.
At the beginning of the realignment in 2011, women overwhelmingly benefited from the realignment. In the first year, more than 5,200 female prisoners were released. The majority of these releases were first time, non serious offenders.
As a result, the three women’s prisons were quickly below the court ordered benchmark. One facility, Valley State Prison for Women, saw a 36 percent reduction in inmates in 2011. The California Department of Corrections decided to convert the facility to a men’s prison to reduce overcrowding elsewhere. The remaining inmates at Valley State Prison were then transferred to the state’s two remaining women’s prisons.
The two women’s facilities are now operating higher than the court mandated level, one of which is currently at 175 percent capacity.
Nearly two-thirds of female prisoners are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, such as drugs or property crimes. Under the realignment, they are put under county jurisdiction as parolees. This gives them access to diversion programs which provide alternatives to jail should they violate their probation. Furthermore, all newly convicted offenders of non-violent, non-sex crimes are also eligible to serve their sentences under county jurisdiction instead of state.
A program that has become popular with several counties is called split sentencing. Under this program, offenders serve a portion of their term in the jail, and the remainder under strict supervision of the probation department. Often this means serving the remainder of their term under house arrest with electronic monitoring. They are subject to regular and surprise inspections and searches, with any violations subject to a number of penalties, including returning to jail.
Not all counties are created equal, however.
Nearly 30 percent of the realignment prisoners released fell under the supervision of Los Angeles County. Only 5 percent of the inmates in LA County jails are involved in a split sentencing program, with officials claiming that they don’t have the resources for the time intensive program. This means that most offenders that would normally serve in prison are serving longer sentences in jails that are not equipped for extended stays.
State prisons and county jails differ due to their populations. Prisons facilities and services are built and designed to house offenders with longer sentences. Jails are temporary facilities, housing those recently arrested, on parole violations, or serving a sentence of a year or less. The influx of prisoners has lead to overcrowding at the jails, which have seen stretched resources, including having to house the overflow in makeshift dorms such as basements.
This has become especially hard on women.
The majority of incarcerated women have children. In jail, visitations must occur through a window, if they happen at all. There are no family rooms, or outside yards for exercising as there are in state prisons. Personal items, such as feminine hygiene products, aren’t easily available or in the same quantities. The standard issued sandals are the only option for footwear. Bad medical conditions and several inmates in a cell are also becoming more common.
The conditions are much like those that were occurring in state prisons, leading to the need for the prisoner realignment.
These issues also exist in the men’s jails, where many are seeing a marked increase in violence. There are plans for a new women’s jail in LA County, though it is still in the planning stages. The sheriff’s department is also looking to developing their jail diversion programs for both men and women.
In the meantime, the state prison population continues to decline because none of the prisoners in the county jail system count towards the state prison population, which makes them closer to meeting their reduction goal.
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