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California’s County Jails Show Population Reductions Amid Statewide Prison Reform

California’s prison reform era began on January 1, 2011, with the decriminalization of marijuana and progressed through Public Safety Realignment (effective October 1, 2011), Proposition 47 (November 5, 2014), Proposition 57 (November 9, 2016), and legalization of marijuana (January 1, 2017). As a result of these reforms reducing the numbers of people imprisoned for lower-level drug and property offenses, state prison populations fell by over 30,000 during the period.

Despite initial fears that reductions in prison populations would rebound to local jurisdictions by increasing jail populations, prison reform now appears to be a model for “jail reform.” Jail reform, like prison reform, reserves expensive, high-level incarceration beds for persons involved with more serious offenses while promoting alternative, community-based management of individuals with lesser offenses.

California jails show several key markers of reform:  reductions in the rates of bookings (down 32 percent from March 2010-March 2018, the latest figures) (Figure 1), unsentenced individuals held in jail (down 19 percent) (Figure 2), individuals held for misdemeanors (down 14 percent as a percent of misdemeanor arrests through 2016) (Figure 3), and holdings of undocumented persons (from 10,500 in 2010 to 6,200 as of the latest, 4th quarter-2015 report), possibly due to decreased migration and California’s “sanctuary” policies. That is, people who are booked-and-released, unsentenced, undocumented, or convicted of low-level offenses are less likely to be jailed today.

Figure 1. Monthly jail ADP and bookings per 100,000 population, 2010-18

Figure 1. Monthly jail ADP and bookings per 100,000 population, 2010-18

These reductions are remarkable, given that counties are now managing tens of thousands of people who formerly would have gone to state prison. Further, legislative and administrative reforms have reduced numerous felony offenses to misdemeanors, and California’s overall population has increased by around 2.3 million in the last eight years.

Meanwhile, the rate of sentenced individuals who are being held in jails has risen by nearly 7 percent, while the number of individuals charged with or convicted of felonies and held in jails as a percent of felony arrests has risen by 53 percent. These trends were expected, since reforms have reduced adult felony arrests by over 100,000 since 2010 and left more serious felony offenses among jailed populations. The proportion of individuals in jail who are charged or convicted of felonies rose from 77 percent to 84 percent.

Figure 2. Sentenced vs. unsentenced individuals in jail per 100,000 population, 2010-18

Figure 2. Sentenced vs. unsentenced individuals in jail per 100,000 population, 2010-18

These modest but positive trends cautiously indicate that prison reform has become the first step in larger incarceration reform, with tangible benefits to both prisons and jails. During the 2010-2018 period, the number of people in jails released early due to lack of jail capacity has fallen from 10,700 to under 6,500. While the ADP (average daily population) of jails fallen by 3,850 since March 2010, the jail ADP rate in relation to California’s population fell by 11 percent amid overall population increases.

The local jail crisis that was predicted to result from state prison reform, initially validated by the increase of about 10,000 in jail ADPs from March 2010 to March 2014, has abated and perhaps even reversed as jail population numbers fell by 13,000 from March 2014 to March 2018. Crime trends have remained stable, and new practices promise less costly, more effective alternatives to incarceration.

As California reduces its prison population to comply with the court-mandated population cap and allocates tens of millions of dollars for community-based treatment programs through Proposition 47, counties are responding with a growing recognition that community-based alternatives are more effective at ending the cycle of incarceration, especially for those with problematic substance use or other complex needs. Recent jail trends suggest that jurisdictions have instigated community-based treatment and supervision experiments that are succeeding in reducing incarceration.

Figure 3. Jail ADP as percent of felony and misdemeanor arrests, 2010-16

Figure 3. Jail ADP as percent of felony and misdemeanor arrests, 2010-16

Keywords: jail population, justice reform, Mike Males, Prop 47

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