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Today, 70,000 nonviolent offenders are locked up in state prison at bankrupting $3.5 billion per year costs to the state, with fiscal conditions getting gloomier as courts order upgrades in prison conditions and reductions in prison populations. Do local jails have the capacity to absorb a significant proportion, perhaps the 30,000 to 40,000, of these drug and property offense convicts – or even, on an immediate basis, the 15,000 or so we found were imprisoned for extremely low-level, mostly misdemeanor, offenses – to help Governor Jerry Brown achieve large, long-needed cuts in prison populations? 

Not under present local jail policies – not even nearly. At most, counties have the jail capacity to house 4,500 to 5,000 repatriated state prisoners after counties’ own peak populations in jail inmates are considered. 

The juvenile and adult prison situations are strikingly different. Counties have three times the empty beds in local juvenile halls and camps needed to take back all of the 1,200 or so youths they now send to state Division of Juvenile Justice facilities, allowing a second leg of the governor’s controversial prisoner reduction proposals to go forward. The few counties that lack capacity or cannot securely hold the most violent imprisoned youth can contract with other counties whose halls and camps have excess space at all security levels. This huge disparity between juvenile and adult prison situations provides another example – a triple example – of why fundamental changes in state crime policy are required. 

First, reform demands a paradigm shift in thinking about crime, which remains mired in obsolete theories advanced in James Q. Wilson’s 1975 book of that title. The big surplus of local juvenile hall space results from a mammoth plunge in serious youth crime (91,000 felony arrests in 1990; 59,000 in 2009) as counties overbuilt local youth facilities based on faulty crime forecasts founded in false demographic notions Wilson and others floated. 

In contrast, adult crime, jail, and prison issues remain plagued by an explosion in aging drug and property felons (58,000 felony arrests of Californians 40 and older in 1990, 111,000 in 2009). While the number of state prisoners under age 40 has dropped over the last 15 years, those age 40 and older rose by 41,000.

In short, crime has flipped. In a trend that would flabbergast traditional crime authorities to the point they still can’t admit it happened, more felonies are now committed by Californians age 40 – 59 than by ages under 20. Crime policy needs to evolve to match the graying of crime and imprisonment. 

Second, in tandem, California’s choice to handle rising thousands of chronic drug, property, and misdemeanor assault offenders with prison and incarceration has proven exorbitantly costly and ineffective. Other Western nations handle these types of offenders through community-based programs rather than lockup. California will have to develop such local systems as well – an arduous but ultimately crucial reform begun with the passage of Proposition 36

Finally, the reason local jails are crowded at present is that 7 in 10 local jail beds (some 53,000 in all) are occupied by inmates who have not been sentenced for an offense, and 12% are occupied by inmates held on contract for other jurisdictions – led by 4,700 federal suspects, presumably mainly for immigration and drug offenses) – or in transport. An upcoming CJCJ report will detail potential reasons why so many jail beds are used for inmates who have not been sentenced by local judges. 

Can the state provide incentives for counties with jail space in excess of their needs to take back low-level state prisoners, including those from other counties, rather than serving as holding tanks for thousands of federal suspects? Addressing the causes of the massive increases in non-sentenced inmates – backlogs due to understaffed court and processing systems, perhaps – is even more crucial to freeing up local jail space. Multiplying fiscal and crowding issues at both the state and local incarceration levels as well as dramatic changes in crime patterns all point to the need for radical change not just in who we imprison, but in who we jail.