Sentence reduction law sparks sharp drop in L.A. County jail crowding

LA County jail populations beginning to drop in the wake of Prop 47, inmates serving more time

Los Angeles County’s long-overcrowded jail system saw a sharp decline in new inmates after California voters approved a law last year reducing penalties for a wide array of nonviolent crimes.

According to a report delivered Tuesday to the Board of Supervisors, law enforcement officials said that with the passage of Proposition 47, which downgraded many drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, the jail population has begun to dip, although they said it was too early to project if that trend would continue.

Fewer new inmates means jailers no longer have to clear room by cutting sentences short and granting early release to many offenders.

“We’re going to be in a state of dynamic flux in the jail system for the next six months or so,” Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald told supervisors.

For years, inmate crowding has been a chronic problem across California. But Los Angeles County’s system of aging and outdated jails grew especially strained when inmate populations and probation officer caseloads swelled in the wake of realignment, a 2011 change in state law that eased prison crowding by making counties responsible for holding and tracking many nonviolent felons previously sent to state custody.

Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials, who manage the jail system, complained that the resulting influx of offenders serving longer sentences was leading to the early release of thousands of other inmates. At the same time, probation officials have had trouble adjusting to a new population of offenders with lengthier criminal records and more serious mental health and substance abuse problems.

In November and December, the first two months after the penalty-reduction law took effect, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office reported that felony sentences of prison, jail or probation had dropped by 41% from the same period in the previous year. And the number of inmates in county jails decreased from about 18,700 at the end of October to fewer than 16,000 at the end of December.

As a result of the falling population, the Sheriff’s Department has reversed a long-standing policy of releasing most inmates after they serve a fraction of their sentences. For years, most men convicted of lower-level crimes served only 20% of their sentence and women served 10%. Now, McDonald said, most inmates are serving 90%.

Since the Sheriff’s Department cut down on early releases, the jail population has increased again, although not to the pre-Proposition 47 level.

Apart from that drop-off in population, an increasing number of inmates sentenced to county jail under realignment are now being given “split sentences”—a shorter term behind bars, followed by a period of mandatory probation. Until recently, fewer than 5% of Los Angeles County inmates received split sentences, but the number began to grow last year as a result of a change in policy by the district attorney, reaching 16.6% of sentences in the last quarter of 2014.

A new state law that took effect this month will require the use of split sentences across California.

Probation officials had advocated for expanded use of split sentencing, saying that people who are under supervision after serving their jail terms are more likely to take part in drug treatment, mental health counseling and other programs that reduce their risk of committing new crimes. 

The changes in jail population are likely to reignite a debate among the five supervisors over the size of a replacement Men’s Central Jail that the county plans to build. Supervisors voted last May to move forward with a $2-billion plan that includes tearing down the dilapidated men’s jail in downtown Los Angeles and replacing it with a new two-tower, 4,860-bed jail geared largely toward inmates with mental health issues.

But Supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl, who joined the board after November’s election, have expressed reservations about the size of that jail.

Kuehl said Tuesday that she continues to question the need for that many beds and “whether there is more capability and better capability to do mental health and substance abuse treatment in the community than in a locked facility.” She said she also does not see the need to put an emphasis on increasing the time served by each inmate.

“Early release never bothered me, because nobody had shown me that serving a full sentence would make people more fit to reenter society,” she said.

Follow Abby Sewell on Twitter at @sewella for more county news.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times