Study finds more felons go free in California after realignment

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Some criminals who would have been incarcerated prior to California’s prison realignment don’t get jailed or don’t stay locked up as long.

That’s the major finding of a study by the Public Policy Institute of California gauging the effects of the state’s new realignment law.

The law, which took effect last October, diverts low-level felons who would previously have gone to state prison to jails instead. State lawmakers enacted the change to comply with a federal court order to ease overcrowding in state prisons.

Counties became responsible for jailing people convicted of non-violent, non-sexual felonies. Counties also shouldered responsibility for tracking state parolees coming out of prison who also fit the low-risk criteria.

After realignment took effect, the state prison population began dropping by thousand of inmates a month. It’s now down by 24,000 inmates. But the Institute study found the decline in prison population wasn’t equally matched by an increase in the jail population. Data for the first three months of realignment shows that for every three fewer felons in state prison, jails added only one.

That data also shows that after realignment took effect, people who were awaiting or on trial for felony crimes spent little or no time in county jails. Counties also let most ex-cons who violated parole stay out of jail, or kept them locked up for shorter periods of time.

The report’s authors, Magnus Lofstrom and Kathern Kramer, write that “the effect of these changes on public safety in the state will be among the most consequential — and watched — outcomes of realignment.”

One big reason for these changes is a lack of jail capacity. Most county jails were at or over capacity before realignment began, including Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego and Imperial counties. Seventeen counties in the state are under court-ordered population restrictions.

So why not build more jails? Eighteen counties received state funds to do just that, but only three counties have broken ground so far. The report warns that counties cannot construct their way out of the problem. Building jails takes time and they're costly to run.

The report concludes that counties will need to consider other options to deal with the influx of felons, such as releasing people awaiting trial who can’t afford to post bail. Counties could also expand jail alternatives such as substance abuse- and work-release programs, or home detention where the felon wears an electronic monitoring device.

The expansion of jail alternatives and alternative sentencing was of the main stated purposes of realignment.

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