Local officials have vowed to fight a proposal by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to shave $1 billion from the state budget by shifting 23,000 state prisoners to overcrowded local jails during the next three years.
"This presents a serious danger to public safety," said Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley. "We are putting in jeopardy gains that have resulted in crime plunging in L.A. to its lowest level in 50 years."
The state's 33 prisons house about 155,000 inmates and are under a federal court order to relieve overcrowding. If state officials do not address the problem soon, a panel of three federal judges could set a cap on new prisoners and order thousands released.
"We are having to look at all options to reduce our population and avoid a cap or an inmate release order," said Seth Unger, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "We have in many ways cut to the bone."
The governor wants to slow the stream of offenders being sent to prison by changing state sentencing guidelines so those who commit low-level felonies such as fraud or grand theft, known as "wobblers," would be prosecuted for misdemeanors and sentenced to jail instead.
Facing a possible $24-billion state budget deficit, the governor's office estimates that changing the sentencing laws could save $99.9 million in the next fiscal year, $360 million the following year and $566 million the third year, said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the Department of Finance.
"The goal is to have flexibility in the sentencing but to keep the hardest offenders behind bars," Palmer said.
Before the proposal could take effect, state legislators would have to approve sweeping changes to the penal code, which some local officials hope is unlikely given the current gridlock in Sacramento. Lawmakers have, however, agreed to stem the flow of inmates to state prisons in recent years by prohibiting any legislation that would convert misdemeanor crimes into felonies.
Members of the governor's staff have been preparing legislation to support the proposal that they plan to present to legislative leaders during budget negotiations in coming days, Palmer said.
Local officials said much of the cost saved by the state would be passed on to them.
"It's another example of the state taking their problems and pushing it down to the local level even though all of us have equal economic problems," said William T Fujioka, Los Angeles County's chief executive.
The governor's plan would force counties to house the equivalent of the populations of four state prisons, including about 12,000 drug offenders.
Los Angeles County has about 19,000 inmates in its seven jails and is among 20 California counties that face court orders to relieve jail overcrowding.
The governor's office had not released estimates this week of how many prisoners would be sent to L.A. County under the plan, but local officials estimate that the number would be at least several thousand in the first year alone. In the last fiscal year, the county sent about 4,500 "wobbler" offenders to state prison, more than half for property crimes such as vehicle theft or receiving stolen property, according to county court records.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca met with state Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate last week to discuss the governor's proposal, which Baca said would force him to release inmates early to make room for the influx.
Los Angeles County Chief Probation Officer Robert Taylor said the plan, which he called unrealistic, would also strain the county's underfunded system for supervising probationers.
Civil rights advocates who have pushed to improve conditions at local jails said the proposal would worsen inmates' plight.
"Local jail overcrowding is already an unconstitutional epidemic in California," said Melinda Bird, senior counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
Many of the state's most powerful law enforcement groups have vowed to fight the plan. They include the Chief Probation Officers of California and the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents L.A. police.
Paul Weber, the union's president, said many "wobbler" offenders are dangerous criminals who belong in prison, not jail. "The label 'low level' for offenders is often misleading," Weber said. "A great number of criminals currently designated low-level have serious criminal records or have plea-bargained to avoid more serious arrest charges."
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky agreed, saying the plan could overwhelm jail and probation systems statewide.
"To have this extent of an infusion of state prisoners to a system that can't handle them capacity-wise or management-wise would be really problematic, not just for L.A. but for San Francisco, Yolo, Mono" counties, Yaroslavsky said. "County jails are not state prisons."
Don Meyer, probation chief in Yolo County and president of the statewide council, said that for smaller counties, the governor's proposal amounts to an untenable budget cut.
Yolo County is considering closing one of its two jails, Meyer said, and won't have anywhere to put state prisoners.
The governor also proposed several other cost-cutting measures for state prisons last week after statewide ballot measures failed and the budget gap widened. Those include transferring 19,000 illegal immigrants to federal custody and releasing 26,000 nonviolent offenders 20 months early.