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Courthouse Columns

On June 21, 2013 California Forward’s Partnership for Community Excellence organized a forum on the use of split sentencing among California’s 58 counties, given the ongoing challenges of Realignment. The event brought together policy researchers, sheriffs, public defenders, district attorneys, and others from across the state. Each participant brought a unique perspective given the experiences of their offices and counties.

Split sentencing occurs when an individual is sentenced by a judge to both a jail commitment term and a period of supervision by probation. These split or blended sentencing practices resulted from the implementation of AB 109. Realignment mandates that counties increase their responsibility for supervising individuals who commit non-violent, non-serious, and non-sexual offenses. Split sentences allow these counties to use alternatives to incarceration for part of an offender’s sentence. This could reduce jail costs and address concerns about facility overcrowding. Research by the Public Policy Institute of California indicates that split sentencing can serve as a fiscally sound alternative for counties, rather than building new jails, which will require ongoing maintenance costs. Moreover, individuals subject to these sentences can potentially enroll in programming for mental health and substance abuse issues.

While split sentences seem to be taking up a new state-wide level of importance, California’s 58 counties vary in their use of such sentences. CJCJ’s March 2013 publication found that counties have each reacted differently to Realignment, with some continuing to rely substantially on the state prison system. There is a similar large diversity in county sentencing practices. Contra Costa County uses split sentencing in 86% of their cases, whereas Los Angeles County only uses them 5% of the time.

Despite their given benefits, what could explain this disparity in split sentencing and how can counties work to increase their use?

PPIC researcher Magnus Lofstrom reported at the forum that counties subject to court-mandated capacity limitations are not more likely to use split sentences. Nor could explanations be found in public opinion on crime policy or county incarceration rates before Realignment took effect.

Instead, participants frequently pointed to the complexities within county criminal justice systems, particularly the ongoing relationships between judges, district attorneys, and probation. Judge Stephen Manley of Santa Clara County explained that sentencing stands at the intersection of many interested groups, including the defendant. This in part explains the county-level nuances in split sentencing. Counties also vary in the resources available to their respective law enforcement agencies. Courts and county Board of Supervisors will not support alternatives to incarceration if they believe law enforcement is incapable of ensuring public safety, while best serving the individual. Lt. Wayne Bilowit, of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department noted that local politics can inform this choice by counties.

That said, there are counties across the state, which are increasingly using split sentences as effective alternatives to incarceration. Officials from Contra Costa County noted that this allows for community-based supervision of high-needs individuals, rather than using jail for these low-risk offenders. Hopefully more counties will follow Contra Costa’s example and incorporate the alternative sentencing practices necessary for a 21st-century criminal justice system.