10:00 PM PST on Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Press-Enterprise

Federal judges and state officials should recognize that dumping more inmates into jampacked county jails is not an acceptable way to ease the state’s prison crowding. Requiring counties to pick up the burden of the state’s prison neglect would provide the illusion of progress, not a practical solution.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s latest proposal for cutting the number of inmates in state prisons rests heavily on local jails, however. California this month handed federal judges a proposal that would trim the state prison population by more than 42,000 by 2011. But nearly 14,000 of that total would come from shifting state inmates to local jails.

A panel of three federal judges ordered the state in August to craft a plan to pare the prison population by more than 40,000 inmates. The state’s 33 prisons now hold about 151,000 inmates, with another 17,000 in camps and other facilities. But the prisons are crowded to nearly double their intended capacity.

The fate of the latest proposal is unclear; the judges rejected the state’s initial plan in September because it did not sufficiently shrink the prison population. And California is trying to get the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the judges’ ruling that ordered the reduction.

Still, no one should see county jails as a primary way to ease the state’s prison crowding. The state proposal would change some crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, which would require only jail time and not a trip to state prison. That step would ease the state’s prison crowding, but wreak havoc on local jails. Many counties have neither the jail space nor the staffing to handle a large influx of state prisoners, and little money to expand jail operations.

Twenty counties, including Riverside and San Bernardino, lack sufficient space to handle existing county inmates; they operate under court-ordered jail population caps. As a result, some crimes see no jail time, while counties release other inmates before their sentences are up.

In the past six years, for example, Riverside County has released more than 21,000 inmates who had not completed their sentences or, if awaiting trial, had not posted bail. The California State Sheriffs’ Association reports that in 2005 alone, counties released more than 139,000 prisoners from jails before their sentences were finished. In 2006, the association projected a statewide need for 66,000 additional jail beds just to handle the current demand.

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