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California Inmate Reduction: ACLU Report Finds Counties Focusing On Jail Expansion

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This article comes to us courtesy of California Watch.

By Ryan Gabrielson

California counties receiving an influx of low-level convicts are preparing to spend millions of dollars for more jail space in the years ahead, but plans for reducing the number incarcerated are far less concrete.

That is the overarching finding of a new report by the ACLU of California, which analyzed how counties intend to use state money received through the Public Safety Realignment Act.

"Counties with jail expansion plans have explicitly allocated anywhere from 16 to 88 percent of their realignment funds to increase jail capacity," the report said, "while their budget allocations for evidence-based alternatives remain unacceptably opaque."

The realignment act directs people who have been newly convicted of a non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual crime to serve their sentences in county jails rather than state prisons.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that medical care in California's prisons was unconstitutionally poor. The justices ordered the state to reduce overcrowding by some 30,000 prisoners.

Gov. Jerry Brown responded with a call to realign the criminal justice system so that low-level offenders serve their sentences, and receive rehabilitation, in the jurisdictions that convicted them. That idea became AB 109 [PDF], which took effect Oct. 1.

Each of the state's 58 counties receives funding to cover the cost of thousands of additional convicts.

Thirty-two counties are allotting money to increase the number of beds available in their jails or to construct new facilities, according to the report, titled "Public Safety Realignment: California at a Crossroads."

Programs to create alternatives to incarceration - like electronic monitoring and work-release programs - are not defined or, in some counties, even included.

The state's local jails already hold about 50,000 people [PDF] awaiting trial.

Allen Hopper, criminal justice policy director at the ACLU of Northern California and one of the report's authors, said many of these detainees are in jail because they cannot afford bail. If sheriff's offices assessed these pretrial detainees for their risks to the public, the report argues those deemed safe could be supervised in the community.

Los Angeles County's law enforcement agencies are considering improvements to their pretrial process. The county's jails incarcerate roughly 10,000 people awaiting trial, according to data from the Corrections Standards Authority.

"It's a hot topic in the county, with regards to looking at which alternatives are appropriate," said Reaver Bingham, deputy director of the Los Angeles County Probation Department. "Who are they most appropriate for? How do we go about making those release decisions? How do we make sure we do not compromise public safety?"

Electronic monitoring is likely part of the solution for overcrowding, said Chief Deputy Raymond Gregory, head of corrections support and planning at the Riverside County Sheriff's Department.

Riverside County's jails are allowed to hold 3,906 people, and not one inmate more. Whenever the sheriff's office exceeds that limit, set by a federal court order, the agency must release inmates and detainees awaiting trial.

This year, 887 people already have left jail early under such circumstances, Gregory said. Some of those early releases might have been avoided if low-risk detainees were placed under community supervision, which tracks people using GPS-equipped ankle bracelets

Currently, only 48 inmates are electronically monitored through the program. "We know we're going to need to expand that even more," Gregory said.

Riverside County also plans to spend $3.8 million to add jail space, as well as $6.2 million to hire 60 correctional officers.

Ryan Gabrielson is an investigative reporter for California Watch, a project of the non-profit Center for Investigative Reporting. Find more California Watch stories here.

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