Jail in a squeeze

The state is dumping prisoners on county facilities that don’t have room for them

J.W. Smith is sheriff of Butte County.

California’s budget crisis has affected every level of government: state, county and city. Painful cuts have been and will continue to be made in all areas. Inevitably, county and city governments are looking at another year of reduced budgets and additional cuts.

Communities need to know that the effect of the latest budget proposal is to dump state prison inmates into county jails that are not able to safely accommodate the increased population. In addition, AB 900, which was supposed to increase capacity and re-entry planning for inmates’ return to the community, is bogged down in bureaucratic red tape and cumbersome processes, and has not yet resulted in a single new county jail bed.

On Jan. 25, SBX3 18 took effect. This measure increases sentencing credits for jail inmates, creates “summary parole” (unsupervised parole), and requires what would have previously been parole violators to face new prosecution and increased time in county jail rather than return to state prison custody (without benefit of daily jail rate paid to counties to hold parole violators). Taken together, these changes and proposals will put further strain on county jails and on local public safety in general.

In February 2009, local public-safety programs were switched to be funded by a modest increase in the vehicle license fee (VLF) as opposed to the general fund. Since February, revenues have been well below projections (down as much as 27 percent per quarter from what was projected). What’s worse, the VLF authorization for local public safety is set to expire in June 2011.

In Butte County our inmate population number is determined by a court-ordered consent decree. This requires us to release inmates when we arrive at a total count of 90 percent of the established rated jail-bed capacity established by the state. The dumping of inmates from the state prison system into the jail population pool will certainly have negative impacts by changing the demographics of which types of inmates can be housed in the jail.

The California State Sheriffs Association has historically worked in a cooperative and collegial manner with the governor and Legislature, and I expect that stance to continue this year. However, I am increasingly concerned about proposals related to parole, county jails and increased local responsibility at a time when we are struggling to fund and manage our current responsibilities and inmate populations. I urge very careful scrutiny of these proposals and the potential for dangerous impacts to our public safety.