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


Does California Need More Jail Construction Funding?

May 27, 2014

Last week the Assembly budget subcommittee on public safety approved the Governor’s proposal to provide $500 million in lease-revenue bond financing for the construction of county jails. These funds would be distributed through a competitive grant process that requires a 10 percent county contribution. Under the Governor’s proposal, these funds could be used to improve or replace current facilities and to build space that would house rehabilitative services, such as classrooms and mental health treatment space. These dollars would supplement $1.7 billion that state policymakers have already allocated to jail construction since 2007.

However, it’s unclear that counties need additional funding to build or expand jails. Experts have identified several cost-effective alternatives to incarceration that would relieve jail overcrowding and reduce the need for further construction, but not all counties are fully using these alternatives. For example, roughly two-thirds of people in jail are not serving sentences — in fact they may be innocent of any crime — but rather are being detained prior to their trials, often because they cannot afford bail. Alternatives to incarceration for these individuals — such as community-based supervision and day reporting centers — would maintain public safety, avoid unnecessary jail construction, and have far lower long-term operational costs. As the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) has noted, “counties that have not employed such tools may not necessarily need state funds for jail construction to address their jail capacity needs.”

The Governor has not yet substantiated the need for additional jail construction funds beyond what has been previously allocated. Members of the Senate budget subcommittee on public safety — in contrast to their Assembly colleagues — recently voted to reject the Governor’s proposal and approved an alternate plan that calls for using the lease-revenue bonds to finance a broader range of county projects, including jails, transitional housing, and mental health treatment facilities.

As the Legislature works with the Governor to finalize the 2014-15 budget, closer scrutiny of the state’s continued jail construction spending is critical. Given the Administration’s recognition that community-based support systems provide the best opportunity to reduce low-level crime, the state may be better able to improve public safety by providing community-based substance use disorder treatment as well as reinvesting in critical services and systems that are still operating at severely diminished levels, such as child care and higher education.

— Selena Teji