Reporting from Sacramento —
California risks repeating past mistakes as it doles out hundreds of millions of dollars to help county jails house inmates who once would have ended up in state prisons, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report released Wednesday.
The report highlights a recurring concern of advocates: Rather than pursuing cheaper ways of protecting public safety, the state is shifting the problem of prison overcrowding to the local level.
"Left unchecked, these counties will build larger jail systems that will cost more tax dollars than they do now and hold more people than they do now," the report said.
California is trying to reduce its state prison population to 110,000 inmates by mid-2013 to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling — the result of lawsuits that asserted overcrowding constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Low-level offenders now remain in jails instead of being sent to state prisons, and the state has promised more money to help local governments cope.
The 25 counties receiving the most "realignment" funding plan to use $45.1 million to pay for roughly 7,000 new jail beds and more than 700 new staff members — a conservative estimate, the report said. That accounts for 14% of the money they've received so far from the state.
The state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation emphasized that California sends the money and then it's up to the counties to decide how to spend it. And the California State Sheriffs' Assn. said counties need to improve and expand jails in order to deliver better services and avoid costly litigation.
"The ACLU is off the mark," said Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin, who leads the statewide association. "We need upgraded facilities."
But counties need to be innovative with the money, said Emily Harris of Californians United for a Responsible Budget, which opposes heavy prison spending.
"If realignment just becomes a massive jail expansion plan, we are continuing the 30 years of failed corrections policy," she said.
Part of the problem is how the state determines the amount of money each county receives, the report said. Counties that historically sent more nonviolent inmates to state prisons get a greater share. In turn, the counties receiving more money through realignment are spending more of it on expanding their jails, the report said.
"In effect, this funding formula rewarded those county criminal justice policy choices that contributed most to the state prison overcrowding crisis in the first place," the report said.
The state set aside $425 million in the current budget to help with realignment, and Gov. Jerry Brown has estimated giving the counties $850 million in the next budget year and $1 billion in the year after that.
The L.A. County Sheriff's Department has been seeking alternatives to locking up inmates, such as pretrial programs and electronic monitoring for low-risk offenders, said spokesman Steve Whitmore. It plans to use realignment funding for inmate medical facilities and hiring new staff members.
"When you have more inmates," Whitmore said, "you need more deputies."