Tried and Tested Ways of Reducing Jail Overcrowding

November 24, 2014

On November 4, California voters approved Proposition 47, a measure that downgrades certain low-level offenses to misdemeanors, thereby limiting the sentence for those crimes to a maximum of one year in county jail. CBP’s analysis of Proposition 47 concluded that this reduction in length of stay could not only lessen the harm that incarceration causes to an individual’s physical and mental health, but could also alleviate jail overcrowding by thousands of beds each year.

This potential for reducing jail-capacity needs should come as good news to state officials, given that California has invested $1.7 billion since 2007 to build new jails or replace and expand old ones, in part to address jail overcrowding. Indeed, the 2014-15 budget agreement provides an additional $500 million for jail construction, despite concern expressed by the Legislative Analyst’s Office that such added capacity may not be necessary.

While passage of Proposition 47 is expected to help address jail overcrowding, counties could potentially build on this key advance by more fully using several other alternatives to incarceration that reduce jail populations while fostering public safety:

  • Counties could employ validated risk-assessment tools to ensure that only individuals who pose a high risk to public safety are detained in their jails. Contra Costa County has been able to manage its jail population through a combination of several strategies, including use of a risk-assessment tool to determine what level of supervision and services people in their jail require. According to a recent study, Contra Costa County has achieved lower rates of incarceration than the rest of the state along with a decrease in crime that mirrors the statewide trend.
  • Counties could reduce the number of people detained in jail prior to their court date by providing alternative supervision in the community. Santa Cruz County created the Jail Alternatives Initiative in 2004 to address a grand jury report pointing to unsafe conditions in the local jail due to overcrowding. The initiative established a pretrial services program that uses five different types of release based on the needs of the individual. This has allowed the county to maintain lower numbers of people in jail awaiting their court date compared to the rest of California.
  • Counties could perform a comprehensive analysis of who is serving time in their jails to identify populations that would be better served through community-based programs. The City and County of San Francisco Sheriff’s Department has been collaborating with local nonprofit organizations since the 1980s to develop alternatives to detention for populations with specialized needs. In particular, a growing number of homeless individuals were not eligible for release from jail while they were waiting for their court date because they did not have an address. Additionally, homeless populations are particularly vulnerable to high-risk health factors, such as infectious diseases, problematic drug use, and mental health issues. A local nonprofit created the Homeless Release Project, which identified transient individuals who were detained pretrial for misdemeanor crimes and linked them with housing, medical care, mental health and drug treatment, and other necessary services. A preliminary study of the program found that participants were less likely to reoffend or to commit more serious crimes, and the project was subsequently consolidated into a larger scheme of pretrial services.

Now that Proposition 47 has passed, counties will have to consider what effect it may have on their jail populations and determine whether they really do need further construction funding. But at the same time, the state board that will administer the new state funding for added jail capacity should consider whether counties have fully embraced available population-management strategies when evaluating applications for construction dollars.

— Selena Teji


Today We Honor Our Veterans, but What About Tomorrow?

November 11, 2014

The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have exposed over two million Americans to the rigors of military training as well as to warfare conditions. A new study of veterans in Los Angeles found that many returning veterans are not prepared to transition to civilian life and require culturally competent approaches to helping them reenter society. In particular:

  • The study surveyed nearly 1,200 pre- and post-9/11 veterans from all military sectors residing in Los Angeles County. Of the post-9/11 veterans, 41 percent were age 30 or younger, 34 percent had at least a four-year college degree, the vast majority received an honorable discharge from service, and almost three-quarters were people of color.
  • More than one in five post-9/11 veterans had an annual income below or nearly below the federal poverty line.
  • Forty percent of post-9/11 veterans reported being homeless in the past year. This includes veterans who slept in a transitional residence — like a shelter, friend or family member’s home, motel, jail, or hospital — as well as in a public place.
  • Twenty-four percent of post-9/11 veterans reported suffering from severe physical health symptoms, and just under a quarter had been screened positive for a mild traumatic brain injury.
  • Forty-six percent of post-9/11 veterans screened positive for post-traumatic stress disorder, 46 percent screened positive for depression, and 15 percent had considered attempting suicide.

Unfortunately, the study also highlighted the failure of service organizations to meet veterans’ needs:

…veteran support agencies are typically organized to support only one or two of these issues. For instance, it is typical to see ‘campaigns’ targeting veteran employment or housing, while ignoring health and education (including skills training and deployment), assuming, often incorrectly, that other agencies are meeting the veterans’ needs in these areas. […] Service providers must recognize that a holistic approach to veteran support is needed, and that they most likely only represent one or two parts of that approach, and maybe not even the most important part, depending on the needs of the veteran.

Unaddressed homelessness, physical and mental health issues, and chronic unemployment put veterans at risk of contact with the criminal justice system. Although reliable data are scarce, a 2013 study found that in 18 randomly selected states, between 2 and 20 percent of the prison population reported having veteran status. The study reviewed more recent localized data and concluded that the proportion of incarcerated individuals who are veterans is rising. The analysis also raised the concern that veteran courts — specialized alternative court systems for veterans — may not be responsive to the complexity of the problem. The study stressed the importance of understanding the often lasting effects of military service that shape veterans’ behavior and yet are often overlooked by the courts and treatment teams.

These studies emphasize the importance of recognizing the unique needs of our veterans and the absence of comprehensive public services and supports to address them. Service agencies must make a commitment to working collaboratively to support individuals returning from the military.

— Selena Teji

California Reduces Disparities in Drug Sentencing Laws

September 30, 2014

This past weekend Governor Brown announced that he had signed Senate Bill 1010 into law, eliminating the disparity between sentences for possession of crack cocaine and powder cocaine for sale in California. SB 1010 continues a positive national and statewide trend of divesting from drug war policies that are ineffective in promoting — and can be harmful to — public safety.

Crack cocaine is a product derived from processing powder cocaine with an alkali, such as baking soda, to make it smokable. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that crack cocaine and powder cocaine are essentially the same drug and can cause the same effects when used.

Despite the similarities between these two products, sentencing laws differ in how the substances are penalized in the criminal justice system. Nationally, individuals selling small amounts of crack cocaine on the streets have received more severe sentences than have wholesale suppliers of powder cocaine. In California, possession for sale of powder cocaine has been subject to a felony jail term of two, three, or four years, whereas possession for sale of crack cocaine has been subject to a felony jail term of four, five, or six years.

These unbalanced penalties have more significantly affected communities of color, even though the likelihood of someone using crack cocaine does not differ based on their race given similar social and environmental conditions. From 2005-06 through 2009-10, African Americans in California were imprisoned for possessing crack cocaine for sale at a rate that was 43 times that of white people and four times that of Latinos.

SB 1010, authored by Senator Holly Mitchell, reduces the penalty for possessing crack cocaine for sale to a felony jail term of two, three, or four years, thereby bringing it in line with that for powder cocaine. Additionally, the bill aligns property forfeiture laws and probation eligibility requirements associated with crack cocaine with those for powder cocaine. This is a welcome reform that equalizes penalties for drug law violations and will help to reduce the racial disparities in our criminal justice system.

This bill is also expected to have a positive impact on California’s finances. The Senate Appropriations Committee projected potential state savings from SB 1010 in the low millions of dollars each year. These savings would result from reduced prison sentences and fewer prison commitments. Given the prevalence of problematic drug use in California, these savings might best be invested in effective community-based drug treatment, education, and prevention services that could improve public safety in the longer term.

SB 1010 represents a muchneeded reform to a larger body of drug laws that have failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption of controlled substances; impeded public health measures designed to reduce the spread of infectious diseases, overdose fatalities, and other harmful consequences of problematic drug use; and resulted in arbitrarily harsher consequences for low-income communities.

— Selena Teji

Parental Incarceration Is Bad for Children’s Health

September 23, 2014

“Family unity and stability have profound impacts on children’s lifelong health,” according to a health impact assessment of Proposition 47 released today by Human Impact Partners (HIP), a nonprofit that analyzes the effects of current and proposed public policies on community health. Proposition 47, “The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act,” will appear on the November 4 statewide ballot and would reduce California’s reliance on incarceration for nonviolent crimes.

HIP’s study estimates that over 10,000 children could be affected by the measure due to a resentencing option for parents who are currently incarcerated. Moreover, as many as 5,800 children a year may not have to see their parent go to prison for a nonviolent crime in the future.

The CBP’s own analysis of Proposition 47, released earlier this month, discussed the negative health impact of incarceration on individuals and their communities. As parents experience periods of incarceration, their children can be exposed to persistent poverty, food insecurity, frequent relocations, and repeated abandonment. This often leads to childhood behavioral difficulties, lower academic test scores, and an increased likelihood of contact with the juvenile justice system.

Incarcerating parents increases children’s likelihood of developing health problems, even when other risk factors — such as chronic poverty, access to health care, and the safety of the neighborhood — are taken into account. In a new study, Kristin Turney, assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine, found that childhood learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD), behavioral problems, developmental delays, and speech or language problems are all significantly related to parental incarceration. Having a parent incarcerated was in some cases more detrimental than divorce or the death of a parent.

As these youth transition into adulthood, many play a supporting role for their parents, which can put a strain on their own lives. Children of Re-Entry is a youth-led New America Media project that is working to document the stories of young people as they grapple with their parents’ incarceration and subsequent return home. In 21-year-old Alisha’s words:

A part of me knows that I’m my mom’s backbone, almost. When I’m around she tries harder. But sometimes that’s not good enough. I don’t want to look over my shoulder all the time. Like, I don’t want to worry about coming home and finding my mom not okay.

Addressing the health needs of children with incarcerated parents is a common-sense public safety approach. Untreated and unaddressed health issues as children can lead to future problems, such as drug addiction, that are prevalent in the criminal justice population. Supporting family stability would likely improve health outcomes and educational and employment prospects for these youth. Reducing unnecessary incarceration for nonviolent crimes could be one way to support family stability and thereby strengthen the long-term well-being of our communities.

— Selena Teji

Proposition 47 Would Continue Trend Toward Local Public Safety Solutions

September 10, 2014

Yesterday the CBP released an analysis of Proposition 47, “The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act,” which will appear on the November 4 statewide ballot. The measure would reclassify seven categories of nonviolent drug and property crimes as misdemeanors, thereby reducing penalties for various low-level offenses (except for individuals with specific serious, violent, or sex offense histories). In addition, Proposition 47 would allow for resentencing of individuals who were previously convicted of the reclassified crimes.

In essence, the measure proposes a series of amendments to current sentencing law in California that would simplify, lower, and equalize the penalties for common nonviolent crimes, such as shoplifting and drug possession for personal use. By doing so, Proposition 47 would continue California’s recent trend of moving away from state corrections for nonviolent crimes and investing in local public safety solutions.

This type of sentencing modification was embodied more broadly in 2011 when the Legislature transferred — or realigned — responsibility for supervising individuals convicted of low-level felonies from the state to counties based on a framework proposed by Governor Brown. Despite the large-scale shift that realignment created, there may still be a need for a deeper revision of California’s sentencing laws.

California’s sentencing structure is a complex system of laws that offer little transparency into the purpose or effectiveness of the system as a whole. Competing goals of punishment and rehabilitation have swung largely in favor of incarceration since the 1970s. However, as our analysis of Proposition 47 shows, overreliance on incarceration can be harmful to communities and costly to the state. Additionally, sentencing outcomes are heavily influenced by the discretion of local criminal justice administrators — for example, police, prosecutors, and judges — which can result in a system of justice by geography. On the one hand, this can mean that where people live arbitrarily affects the likelihood they will be sentenced to a period of incarceration. On the other hand, flexibility in the system allows local jurisdictions to respond more effectively to the particular needs of their communities.

The Legislature, Administration, and judicial branch have all acknowledged a need for a more comprehensive revision of sentencing laws, but have been slow to take action, often due to disagreements over who should have what decision-making power and responsibility.

Proposition 47 presents an opportunity for voters to weigh in on one aspect of California’s sentencing structure: how to respond to certain nonviolent crimes. The measure would lead to a decline in incarceration and would invest the resulting state savings into drug and mental health treatment, school truancy and dropout prevention, and victim services. These three areas have been shown to improve public safety and could result in further criminal justice savings.

Insofar as the measure reduces criminal justice spending in the long term — both through decreased use of state prisons for nonviolent crime and through investment in local public safety solutions — California could use freed up resources to invest in critical public systems and services that are operating at severely diminished funding levels such as child care, education, and services for low-income seniors and people with disabilities.

— Selena Teji