LA County jails at their most crowded in years

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L.A.'s jails are experiencing their highest population numbers in years. Officials say it's a result of prison realignment.

In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an order forcing California's state prison system to massively reduce overcrowding. The legislature responded by passing AB109, also known as realignment. The new system funneled lower-level, non-violent and non-serious felons to serve their time in county jails instead of state prison. The move went a long way towards helping get the state out of legal trouble (it's not quite there yet) but helped spur crowding in many county's jails.

Related: FAQ: Looking at the effects of California's prison realignment program

In L.A., Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald, who heads the jails, said the current population of 19,200 is the highest it's been in years. Specifically, since about July 2009. 

The numbers in between are significantly lower – at one point hitting a low of 13,462 in 2011.

The reason for the two-year dip before realignment is a bit fuzzy, McDonald said, as her office is still examining the numbers. Some possible explanation for the drop include: Changes in contracts with the federal government to house immigration detainees. Also, the method housing parole violators.

"What I can say for sure is it's the highest population we've had in the county jail since realignment started and I think that's a good judge of the new system," McDonald said.

She said she hopes the population is leveling off a bit, nearly three years into the new system. The jails have had to become creative about space, opening previously unused areas and tightening the inmate classification system to get more inmates out of single and double cells and into the dorms.

Meanwhile, the department's also considering tweaking the way it manages overcrowding with the early release of inmates. A new automated risk assessment tool could help the county decide which inmates have the least risk of committing another crime if released, McDonald said, and which require more programming while in jail. 

McDonald said the new tool could help inform a discussion on how to change policies dealing with inmates at the jail.

"Who are we putting in our very limited program space," McDonald said. "I want to make sure we're using those limited slots for high-risk inmates."

The second piece is altering the county's early release program, which at the moment is based purely on time served.

"I'd rather have a dialogue and evaluation of should we be using a risk tool to make decisions on who we're going to release," McDonald said.

The county has talks scheduled with state leaders over the next few weeks to discuss adapting the tool to Los Angeles County. The risk assessment tool is being used both across California and Washington.

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