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Report: LA among counties sending more to prison

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A new report by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) echoes widespread concerns California may not be on track to reduce its prison population quickly enough to comply with a federal court order.

Last week, a federal court told the state it needs to come up with more ways of reducing overcrowding.

"I think they never intended to get to the court-ordered reduction," Don Specter, of the Prison Law Office, told the L.A. Times.

Realignment, many said, has run its course and simply cannot get California to its end goals. 

The CJCJ report, however, points to a different culprit, broaching the idea that county prosecutors may be behind the slowdown rather than the state.

Realignment, implemented in the fall of 2011, is the state's primary strategy for drastically reducing the number of people in prison. Realignment reassigned responsibility for offenders who commit lower level, non-violent and non-sexual crimes to the county. It also shifted responsibility for many parolees coming out of prison to the county, meaning most parole violations are no longer punishable with prison time.

And not everyone's happy about it. L.A. District Attorney Steve Cooley says realignment is "a public safety disaster," and the "worst thing they could have come up with" to cut the prison population.

But is it doing its job?

Since realignment's implementation, California's prison population has dropped by 26,480 inmates. That, however, is not enough to meet a federal court order, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, to drastically reduce overcrowding. Mostly because the reductions have tapered off. While the number of inmates returning to prison on parole violations continues to decline, new felony admissions went up in the last quarter.

That means one of three things, writes researcher Mike Males: either crime has gone up, realignment has done all it can do or prosecutors are finding ways to send people to prison despite realignment.  

The first two possibilities are not likely, he says, given the numbers for violent offenses have stayed the same and property offenses have gone up marginally. 

Instead, Males found that "the biggest increase in admissions, by far, was in new felon admissions for non-marijuana drug offenses, which rose by 22 percent."

Los Angeles County is one are that's seen prison committments rise. Males points out that Cooley has said he would instruct prosecutors in his office to "scour" criminal records of defendants for serious and violent offenses and make sure to charge crimes as serious and violent when possible. 

"Whether as a result of deliberate policy or for other reasons," the report says. "Los Angeles’s prison commitments rose by 135 from the first to the second quarter of 2012, reversing the county’s previous decline."

Data on what their offenses were was not immediately available. 

Reached for comment, Cooley said he's doing his job.

"We're following the law in this county," he said. "We don't want to miss an opportunity to put someone in state prison who belongs in state prison."


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