“These Significant Inequalities Need Resolution”
There’s a wide disparity between California counties on how many people are shipped off to state prisons, a new report says.
Since Gov. Jerry Brown shifted responsibility for some low-level offenders from state to county control on Oct. 1, 2011, San Francisco County has spearheaded the new approach to crime and punishment. If other counties followed the lead, 25,000 fewer offenders would have ended up in state prison, the report says.
“The prison population has remained steady since September 2012, and shows little signs of further reduction”
San Francisco’s solution: use of alternative sentencing includes, electronic monitoring, home detention, residential treatment beds, restorative justice classes, substance abuse services, parenting classes, employment counseling and services, and transitional housing.
Risk and needs assessment evaluations are given to offenders 60 days before released. Post-release services include home visits, outpatient behavioral health treatment and cognitive behavioral interventions.
“Statewide, six percent of people arrested for non-violent crimes were sentenced to state prison, but the figure was 16 percent in Kings County and only one percent in San Francisco County, according to the report by Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.
“For drug offenses, arrestees in Kings County were 19 times more likely to serve time in state prison than in San Francisco County — and 35 times more likely than in Contra Costa County.”
The shifting of low-level offenders to county control is called Realignment. It was California’s response to a May 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling to reduce its prison population.
The “in-state prison population has fallen 17 percent since the implementation of Realignment,” finds the report. However, “the prison population has remained steady since September 2012, and shows little signs of further reductions.”
California’s 33 prisons are designed to hold 79,959 offenders. The order determined California could incarcerate 109,944 people without violating the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment. The state’s prisons held 119,274 prisoners as of March 13.
A major problem is that many counties continue to send low-level property and drug offenders to state prison, the report claims. In addition, significant county-by-county differences in sentencing are creating “both civil rights and economic concerns” leading to “overcrowding and lawsuits, and create higher state taxpayer liabilities than do low-imprisonment, self-reliant counties that manage more offenders locally,” according to the report.
The 5-, 10-, or even 20-fold disparities in the likelihood of a drug offender, a petty thief with prior convictions or a check forger being sentenced to prison in one county versus another county raises serious questions about equal application of the law.
“These significant inequalities need resolution either by tightening Realignment standards to further restrict prison admissions, or by state sentencing guidelines that accomplish the same goal of reserving prison space for people convicted of violent, serious, or sex-related crimes.”
Sentencing commissions establish either advisory or mandatory guidelines for ranges of sentences allowed for each offense, with allowances for mitigating and aggravating factors.
“Without comprehensive sentencing reform, a solution to the costs, high recidivism rates, and legal crises plaguing California’s prison system will likely remain elusive,” the report concludes.