Squeezed between a law-and-order society and a shortage of public funds, San Diego County's jails are filled--forcing police, jailers and judges to allow increasingly dangerous criminals back on the streets with little or no punishment, local government officials and criminal justice authorities say.
More than five years after a Superior Court judge ordered an end to overcrowding in the Central Jail downtown, that task is done. But three regional jails, a women's jail and a rural jail camp, built to help ease the overcrowding downtown, are themselves now overflowing with inmates. And despite the increased use of alternatives to jail, county officials say they can't keep up with the demand for cells brought on by expanded city police forces and stiffened sentencing laws that are the result of the public's desire to be tougher on crime.
Police here complain that the overcrowded jails force them to release too many misdemeanor offenders on the streets without bringing them to jail. Most of those who are brought in are let go within hours--many within minutes--because there is no room for them. Ninety-seven percent of suspects booked into the Central Jail on misdemeanor charges never make it to a cell.
Judges, meanwhile, contend that the criminal justice system becomes a mockery when suspected criminals, released on their promise to appear in court, are not jailed after failing to show for a hearing. Others, convicted of crimes from drunk driving to burglary, spend so little time behind bars that jail has ceased to be a deterrent for them, judges say.
County supervisors, convinced that the problem is bad and growing worse, on Dec. 17 agreed to build a 500-bed jail and a 350-bed honor camp. But the tougher question--finding the money to pay for that construction--remains to be decided, and even after the money is found it will be at least five years before a new jail is opened. By then, county officials say, still more cells will be needed.
Today, the county's jails house an average of 2,600 inmates each day--900 more than they were built for. An additional 675 inmates are sentenced to six minimum-security honor camps, which are run by the Probation Department and take only as many prisoners as they are designed for. In the next 20 years, current trends would more than triple the shortage of jail beds to 2,856.
So far, the increased crowding has not meant more violence in the jails. The newer jails in Vista, El Cajon and Chula Vista are roomier than the older, prison-like downtown jail and can handle almost double their designed capacity without major problems. But that level of crowding has been reached and exceeded, and officials warn that more inmates cannot safely be fit into the space.
"It's very much like a rubber band," said Asst. Sheriff Clifford Powell, who supervises the jail system. "You can keep stretching it and stretching it and you never know when it's going to happen, but it's going to go bang."
While the population of San Diego County doubled during the last 25 years, the jail population quintupled.
County jails house suspected criminals awaiting trial, and convicted criminals sentenced to terms of one year or less. Those sentenced to longer terms are transferred to state prisons.
San Diego County is not alone in its battle against jail overcrowding. Nationwide, counties are rushing to build new jails and are trying more novel alternatives to incarceration. In California, jails built for 38,228 inmates are housing an average of 48,555, according to officials with the state Department of Corrections. Although voters approved jail construction bond issues in 1982 and 1984 providing for thousands of beds, officials statewide say it would take another billion dollars to build the beds now needed.
At least a dozen California counties are under court orders to relieve overcrowding. In Orange County, the county government is fined $10 for every inmate who spends a night on a mattress on a jailhouse floor. In Los Angeles, which has the nation's largest local jail system with more than 17,000 inmates, some prisoners slept on the roof of the main jail until more cells were recently made available.
Yolo County Supervisor Betsy Marchand, chairwoman of a statewide committee on criminal justice administration, calls the problem the "state-city sandwich." The state Legislature approves laws defining new crimes or toughening penalties for existing crimes, and the cities increase the size of their police departments to enforce those laws. The result: more people in jail and more people processed through the courts, both of which are the responsibility of the counties.
"It's a problem in every single county in the state that I'm aware of," Marchand said. "If they have a new facility or have been able to expand a little bit, then they have other problems. But most every new facility I'm aware of was overcrowded the day it was opened."