Tried and Tested Ways of Reducing Jail Overcrowding

On November 4, California voters approved Proposition 47, a measure that downgrades certain low-level offenses to misdemeanors, thereby limiting the sentence for those crimes to a maximum of one year in county jail. CBP’s analysis of Proposition 47 concluded that this reduction in length of stay could not only lessen the harm that incarceration causes to an individual’s physical and mental health, but could also alleviate jail overcrowding by thousands of beds each year.

This potential for reducing jail-capacity needs should come as good news to state officials, given that California has invested $1.7 billion since 2007 to build new jails or replace and expand old ones, in part to address jail overcrowding. Indeed, the 2014-15 budget agreement provides an additional $500 million for jail construction, despite concern expressed by the Legislative Analyst’s Office that such added capacity may not be necessary.

While passage of Proposition 47 is expected to help address jail overcrowding, counties could potentially build on this key advance by more fully using several other alternatives to incarceration that reduce jail populations while fostering public safety:

  • Counties could employ validated risk-assessment tools to ensure that only individuals who pose a high risk to public safety are detained in their jails. Contra Costa County has been able to manage its jail population through a combination of several strategies, including use of a risk-assessment tool to determine what level of supervision and services people in their jail require. According to a recent study, Contra Costa County has achieved lower rates of incarceration than the rest of the state along with a decrease in crime that mirrors the statewide trend.
  • Counties could reduce the number of people detained in jail prior to their court date by providing alternative supervision in the community. Santa Cruz County created the Jail Alternatives Initiative in 2004 to address a grand jury report pointing to unsafe conditions in the local jail due to overcrowding. The initiative established a pretrial services program that uses five different types of release based on the needs of the individual. This has allowed the county to maintain lower numbers of people in jail awaiting their court date compared to the rest of California.
  • Counties could perform a comprehensive analysis of who is serving time in their jails to identify populations that would be better served through community-based programs. The City and County of San Francisco Sheriff’s Department has been collaborating with local nonprofit organizations since the 1980s to develop alternatives to detention for populations with specialized needs. In particular, a growing number of homeless individuals were not eligible for release from jail while they were waiting for their court date because they did not have an address. Additionally, homeless populations are particularly vulnerable to high-risk health factors, such as infectious diseases, problematic drug use, and mental health issues. A local nonprofit created the Homeless Release Project, which identified transient individuals who were detained pretrial for misdemeanor crimes and linked them with housing, medical care, mental health and drug treatment, and other necessary services. A preliminary study of the program found that participants were less likely to reoffend or to commit more serious crimes, and the project was subsequently consolidated into a larger scheme of pretrial services.

Now that Proposition 47 has passed, counties will have to consider what effect it may have on their jail populations and determine whether they really do need further construction funding. But at the same time, the state board that will administer the new state funding for added jail capacity should consider whether counties have fully embraced available population-management strategies when evaluating applications for construction dollars.

— Selena Teji