With jails, drug-rehab centers and probation offices already swamped, Los Angeles County officials are bracing to take on thousands of additional low-risk convicts who could come their way as part of a proposed legal settlement to reduce state prison overcrowding.
The idea of reducing the state prison population by shifting offenders to county programs and facilities is causing anxiety among those who would be expected to take on the additional responsibilities.
"I'm pretty worried," said Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, whose jail system is under a court order to ease overcrowded facilities. "The impact is substantial because we have the largest percentage of the prison population coming out of our county. If you don't plan it carefully and with success in mind, what you get is catastrophe."
The proposed settlement comes two years after attorneys for prisoners petitioned a federal court to impose a cap on the prison population.
They have argued that crowded prisons contribute to the state's failure to address serious problems with mental healthcare and medical treatment given to inmates.
Under the draft agreement, new offenders and parole violators would be diverted from state prison and remain in their home communities to be watched over by county probation officers, jailers and state parole agents.
Some offenders would go into local drug rehabilitation programs and halfway houses under supervision of county probation officers; some would be fitted with electronic monitoring devices and assigned to home detention; and others could end up serving time in county lockups.
California Court of Appeal Justice Peter Siggins, a settlement consultant and mediator, said the proposal is a more reasonable approach to easing overcrowding than simply releasing prisoners before they have served their sentences. He also said providing offenders with county-level treatment programs could help lower recidivism rates.
The goal, Siggins said, "was to trade that revolving door for a magnifying glass and really put these folks under scrutiny." He said any proposal to divert state convicts to counties would include funding.
The state, inmates' lawyers and other parties in the case are expected to report in federal court by the end of this week whether they want to go forward with the settlement.
State officials hope that the savings in diverting offenders from state prison can cover any additional revenue needs of the counties, so the change would be revenue-neutral, said Seth Unger, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Still, county officials worry that with the state facing a budget crisis, it might not provide enough money to defray the full expense, said Yvonne B. Burke, chairwoman of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
"To shift more people to the county, where we have had people sleeping on the floors in our jails, is just an impossible situation," Burke said. "We are not in a position to take on additional burden."
The proposed settlement is likely to have a significant effect in Los Angeles County, which generates 33% of the state's prison population; inmates would be released to the counties where they lived before being arrested.
An advisory panel would determine how much the prison population should be reduced to address concerns that the crowding is causing a level of care that is unconstitutional, Unger said.
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said his office was told by Elwood Lui, the court-appointed settlement referee in the case, that one proposal would see the state prison population of 170,000 cut by about 25,000 inmates over three years, diverting offenders to county-level programs and facilities.
Cooley said he has so far withheld his endorsement of the proposal because he wants more information about how it would work. "I'm not so sure the present state of the county jail system and the diversion program infrastructure would be adequate to take on that added burden," Cooley said.
If the number is close to 25,000, a 33% share would mean 8,250 offenders diverted to programs and facilities in Los Angeles County.
Thousands more offenders could end up going to other local communities, including Orange County, which was the last residence for 5.3% of state prison inmates, San Bernardino County (7.3%) and Riverside County (6.5%).
Los Angeles County has about 20,000 inmates in its county jails, a level required by a court order issued in the 1980s to deal with overcrowding issues when there were 24,000 packed into cells. To keep the jail population down, Baca lets many inmates out early. Male inmates serve an average of 70% of their sentences, and females serve 10% to 20%, depending on the crime, he said.
Baca said there is no room in the jails for hundreds of additional offenders, so anyone diverted from the state prisons who needs incarceration would probably be placed on electronic home detention, using a global positioning system to monitor their movements.
"We are not in a position to add local costs for state mandates," Baca said.
That is also true of drug treatment and other diversion programs as alternatives to prison, according to Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of the county Department of Public Health. His agency oversees drug treatment programs that serve 58,000 people annually.
"We certainly would try to accommodate them, but frankly, we are at capacity in our residential programs. We have waiting lists," Fielding said. Even if money were provided, the county would have to find a way to open new residential care and halfway houses, an often time-consuming task because of neighborhood opposition. The state settlement also could worsen the strain on the Los Angeles County Probation Department, which supervises 82,000 adult and juvenile offenders.
Los Angeles County deputy probation officers already handle an average of more than 175 probationers each, a caseload that far exceeds the 40-to-1 industry standard, said Chief Deputy Probation Officer David M. Davies. As a result, adding more probationers to supervise without additional staff and funding could reduce oversight to what is called "automated minimal service," a superficial level of tracking criminals, Davies said.
Local concerns about the settlement are being weighed against the alternative if a settlement is not reached. In that case, the federal court could order a more drastic prison release plan that could put more criminals, and those with more serious offenses, on local streets, Cooley said.
Criminal justice officials are also concerned about losing control of the state prison system to a federal court.
"Certainly the specter of a federal consent decree, which we've seen don't always work and sometimes don't end, is a scary prospect," Cooley said.
Times staff writer Michael Rothfeld contributed to this report.