County jail populations across California dip after Prop 47

Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail.
Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail. Corey Bridwell/KPCC

Inmate populations are falling in once-overcrowded California county jails since voters decided in November that certain drug and property crimes should be treated as misdemeanors instead of felonies.

While some are avoiding jail, many of those who are sent to county lock-ups for crimes not covered by the ballot initiative dubbed Proposition 47 are spending more time there because jail officials no longer must release them early due to overcrowding.

Fresno, Kern, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego counties are among those with fewer early releases, according to an Associated Press survey of the 10 counties that together account for about 70 percent of California's total jail population.

Los Angeles, with the nation's largest jail system, saw its jail population drop by about 17 percent, or 3,200 inmates, after Proposition 47 took effect. The population has started creeping back up because inmates who had been released after serving a fraction of their sentences are now serving as much as 100 percent, said Jody Sharp, a commander with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

Bookings are down a quarter, and narcotics arrests down one-third from a year ago, Sharp said, because those charged with offenses under Proposition 47 are now generally given citations to appear in court at a future date instead of being arrested and hauled off to jail.The early figures show the initiative is working as voters intended, said Garrick Byers, president of the California Public Defenders Association.

"It reduced the punishment for many crimes from an excessive punishment to a punishment that's more in line with what the crime is," he said. "They're still getting a criminal punishment, nobody's getting off free. But it is more commonly probation, more commonly a lower lock-up time, more commonly a punishment that is going to result in rehabilitation."

The resulting decline in early releases also tracks voters' wishes, Byers said. "The ones who are spending more time in jail are the ones where their offenses are more serious and violent," he said.

The ballot measure changed shoplifting, forgery, fraud, petty theft and possession of small amounts of drugs — including cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines — from felonies to misdemeanors. With thousands fewer inmates being sent to county jails for those crimes, other inmates are staying longer.

"A lot of counties are saying, 'Now we don't have to release folks after they've served 10 percent or 30 percent of their time, we can keep them now,' " said Cory Salzillo, legislative director for the California State Sheriffs' Association.

San Diego County's jail population is down 900 inmates, allowing the sheriff's department to cut back on some early release credits. The jail released 130 inmates due to Proposition 47's lower penalties, and the jail is booking about 1,000 fewer inmates each month, spokeswoman Jan Caldwell said.

Christine Ward, executive director of the Crime Victims Action Alliance, is pleased with the drop in early releases, but she fears the lower penalties under Proposition 47 will eventually result in an increase in crime.

"Although we're seeing lower jail populations, it doesn't necessarily mean that our communities are any safer. It just means more people are out in our communities that perhaps shouldn't be there," she said. "We're just waiting for the other shoe to drop, and that's very worrisome."

Much of the decrease related to Proposition 47 is likely to rebound as suspects are sentenced or fail to appear for court hearings and are arrested on warrants, jail officials said.

"We have this two-month pause button because they're being told to come to court" instead of being arrested on the spot, Riverside County Chief Deputy Scot Collins said.

Although the top sentence now is less than a year in jail instead of a multiyear sentence, "They're going to have to be sentenced one way or another," Collins said.

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