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


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


Twitter Chat With the CBP on Corrections Spending: July 22

July 18, 2014

California’s new state budget continues the persistent trend of higher state spending on corrections, despite a declining crime rate and an anticipated drop in the state prison population in the coming years. New funding has been made available for jail construction, even though various alternatives to incarceration could promote public safety and would be more cost-effective. And continued growth in corrections spending means fewer resources available for investing in education, child care, job training, and other state priorities.

As part of an ongoing series of Twitter chats hosted by Californians for Safety and Justice, CBP Policy Analyst Selena Teji next week will discuss trends in corrections spending and criminal justice policy, including how state leaders might better align budget choices with the needs of California’s families and communities. The Twitter chat will take place Tuesday, July 22, from noon to 1 p.m PDT. You can follow the discussion — and offer questions and comments — via the #SchoolsNotPrisons hashtag. We hope you can join us for this timely discussion.

— Steven Bliss