With the US Supreme Court ruling that California must relieve overcrowding in its prison system, the current plan embraced by Governor Jerry Brown and his administration is to send thousands of prison inmates to county jails to serve their sentences. Today, a piece by the excellent reporter Justine Sharrock over at New America Media points out that some counties do not seem ready to accept those inmates. Primarily, Sharrock points to “the Los Angeles problem:”
Of all the counties, Los Angeles County will play the most significant role in the realignment program, since one-third, or nearly 57,000, California state prisoners originate from that area.
L.A. County jails, which house an estimated 19,500 inmates daily, have 5,000 unused beds. The Pitchess Detention Center north of Santa Clarita, for example, houses only two inmates. (Those two inmates serve to maintain the jail’s open status, to avoid any upgrades that would be required if the jail were to close and reopen.)
If realignment goes through, certain counties, like Los Angles, Kern, and San Diego, will likely face a huge influx of inmates. And, Sharrock reports, conditions in LA jails are questionable as it is–meaning, if inmates were in overcrowded, sub-constitutional conditions in prison, nothing better awaits them at the county level.
Similar arguments have been put forth when talking about shrinking the Division of Juvenile Justice (formerly California Youth Authority), another tenet of Brown’s plan to tighten state corrections. The alternative, sending kids to county-run lock-ups, leaves them vulnerable to local conditions, which in some areas of the state, may be worse than the well-funded and recently overhauled state system.
So why do many prison reformers embrace Brown’s plan to bring inmates to the local level? One big reason is this: many believe that people don’t care about whether or not the criminal justice system is working properly until it’s in their face. Most people don’t have to deal with prisons–how to pay for them, how to keep them functioning to constitutional standards, how to keep them running safely for inmates and correctional officers–so people focus on more immediate problems to their lives. As juvenile justice reformer James Bell once said during an interview, “you know what the number one political lobby in San Francisco is? Pet owners. You talk about changing the dog walking paths, and get thousands of calls. But no one cares about a fair and equitable justice system.”
So many prison reformers have embraced Brown’s plan. With a return of responsibility to the county level, the hope in these circles is that hysteria over thousands of inmates returning to their home counties–and the proximity of the problem, opposed to the far-off “prison overcrowding” issue–will breed creativity about how to restructure the justice system to keep the incarcerated population smaller. Chaos brings attention, and attention, they hope, brings reform.