SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan approved two years ago to ease crowding in state prisons has left county jails struggling with hard-core felons sentenced to spend years, even decades, in facilities meant to hold criminals for no more than a year.
County sheriffs warn that these long-term inmates are more than they can handle. They say they pose security threats in their already-crowded lockups and invite the same costly class-action lawsuits over medical care and services that now dog state prisons.
“Our facilities were never constructed to manage an inmate for longer than a year,” said Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern, president of the state sheriffs association, describing jails statewide.
Before the passage of AB 109 — the 2011 law pushed by the governor to reduce California’s prison population — jail sentences in California were limited to one year. Now, California has had more than 1,300 inmates sentenced to five years or more in jails, according to a sheriffs association survey and reports by individual jails.
The situation is most prevalent in Los Angeles County, where jails hold more than 530 inmates who have been sentenced to jail terms of five years or more, 43 of them for more than a decade.
The most extreme of those: a top-level trafficker for a Mexican drug cartel, caught with a shipment of 211 kilos of cocaine. He has been ordered to spend 42 years in the jail.
Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko, who now has 11 inmates serving sentences of five years or more, said they have been accompanied by a rise in jail violence, including inmate-on-inmate assaults. “We now have a hierarchy of inmates who have a prison culture,” he said.
AB 109 created a list of about 500 felonies that would no longer be punished by time in state prison but in county jail. Counties were told they would be sent only those who have committed nonviolent and nonserious crimes.
But that list failed to account for California’s drug sentencing enhancements, which factor in the amount of drugs involved.
As a result, most of the people sentenced to the longest jail terms, of a decade or more, committed crimes involving substantial amounts of drugs, the sheriffs survey found.
The governor initially dismissed the complaints. He now acknowledges there is a problem, but efforts to fix it have become mired in the politics of prison crowding.
Nicholas Gaona’s ties to a Mexican drug cartel so unnerved jurors during his 2011 trial that they sent a note to the judge asking whether their lives were in danger. The day federal agents raided Gaona’s stash houses in Los Angeles, they found cocaine worth $21 million on the street.
At sentencing, the judge tallied up the number of conspiracies and the weight of the drugs in each. That led to a 42-year sentence. Still, with no weapon used in the crime, the narcotics trafficker is classified on paper as a nonserious offender.
“He should be in state prison,” said John Bur, the federal drug agent in charge of the task force that brought the case.
Los Angeles County officials say they can handle such high-level criminals.
One way jailers keep inmates occupied is by offering classes. The county has 62 education programs, from dog grooming to brick-laying, as well as jobs that inmates can fill. The programs not only provide inmates a skill that can lead to a job on the outside, but also keep them busy and lower the incidence of jail violence.
But those classes were designed for a transient population. Before AB 109, the average stay in the Los Angeles jail was 54 days, and most classes are meant to be finished in 12 weeks.
It is possible for Gaona and other long-term inmates in Los Angeles to just keep repeating classes.
“It would be like a job,” said Capt. Mike Bornman, in charge of the Los Angeles jail education curriculum.
Jail officials would not say how Gaona is spending his time.
The capacity of California jails to absorb long-term inmates varies.
The Los Angeles County Jail in Castaic that houses Gaona is a medium-security campus where inmates can move about most of the day.
Other California jails, including others in Los Angeles, confine inmates to cells, making it difficult to move them around and limiting access to exercise yards, rehabilitation programs and classes.
In some Los Angeles jails, for instance, inmates get only three hours a week outside their cells.
That is the legal minimum in California. The American Bar Assn. recommends at least an hour a day.
California jails also are required to provide only basic and emergency medical care. Treating chronic conditions, geriatric inmates and complex diseases can exceed both the resources and budget of many jail administrators, especially those in small, rural counties.
The state’s jail regulations were written “with the mentality that jails were a temporary holding place,” said Gary Wion, deputy director of facility standards for the Board of State and Community Corrections.
It will take a revision of those regulations to address the inadequacies, he said. “That’s going to need to be addressed,” he said. “Outdoor time, programming and how inmates spend their day.”
Six counties already are fighting lawsuits over conditions in their jails, including allegations of substandard medical care.
Prisoner-rights lawyers say jail administrators are right to worry about more litigation.
The increased time inmates are in those jails will probably make those problems worse, said Don Specter, lead attorney at the Prison Law Office. The prisoner-rights organization filed the inmate medical care lawsuit that forced Brown to start emptying prisons. The organization is now suing several jails over similar issues.
“Jails were for 30-day stints, and the most you could do was a year. They weren’t built for people to exercise. They don’t have law libraries. They don’t have jobs,” Specter said. “A lot of guys would rather go to prison just to have something to do.”
Brown initially dismissed sheriffs’ complaints over the type of criminals being sent to county jails under AB 109 as “political blame shifting.”
Democratic leaders in the Legislature went along, killing bills that would have diverted long-haul inmates to state prison.
But in June, the governor agreed there was a problem. He offered to take back the state’s longest-serving jail inmates if counties would agree to take state prisoners in return.
The one-for-one swap would have required counties to accept an “equivalent number” of violent prisoners at the tail end of their prison terms. Sending an inmate such as Gaona to state prison for 42 years could have forced Los Angeles to take 42 prisoners with a year left to serve, or 84 prisoners on their last six months, though details were never worked out.
Ahern, the Alameda County sheriff, endorsed the idea, calling it a way to use jails to prepare prisoners for release.
The trade proposal, however, proved unworkable after both sheriffs and state officials expressed concern about the types of inmates they would be sent.
A legislative analyst warned that counties would take advantage of the trade and give California their worst, costliest inmates.
Of course they would, sheriffs lobbyist Nick Warner said at a legislative hearing: “We can’t handle them.”