Calif. Counties Undermine State Efforts to Cut Prison Population by Don Thompson

Posted: March 21, 2014 in News and politics

SACRAMENTO, Calif. | California counties are confounding the state’s court-ordered efforts to sharply reduce its inmate population by sending state prisons far more convicts than anticipated, including a record number of people with second felony convictions.

The surge in offenders requiring state prison sentences is undermining a nearly 3-year-old law pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The legislation restructured California’s criminal justice system to keep lower-level felons in county jails while reserving state prison cells for serious, violent and sexual offenders.

The law initially reduced the state prison population by 25,000 inmates and brought it close to the level demanded by a special panel of three federal judges who ruled that a reduction in crowding was the best way to improve treatment of inmates.

But the inmate population is rising again, led by a record increase in the number of second felony convictions for those who already had a prior conviction for a serious crime.

Counties, where prosecutors have discretion in filing such charges, sent nearly 5,500 people with second felony convictions to state prisons during the 2013-14 fiscal year, a 33 percent increase over the previous year and the most since California enacted the nation’s first three-strikes law in 1994 that required life sentences for offenders convicted of three felonies.

The number climbs to 6,044 two-strike offenders last year if parole violators returned to prison with new second-strike sentences are included, a 20 percent increase.

The trend is complicating the state’s mandate to meet a prison population cap by February 2016. Last month, the federal judges reluctantly gave Brown’s administration two additional years to comply by taking steps that include earlier releases for some inmates sentenced on a second strike.

Partly as a result of the increase in second-strike offenders, the prison population of 133,000 inmates last June is projected to grow to 143,000 by June 2019, despite all the steps the state is taking to comply with the federal court order and reduce the population to about 112,000 inmates.

State prisons currently hold more than 34,000 second-strikers, about a quarter of the total inmate population.

Second-strike convictions had been generally declining since 1999. They began rising sharply about the same time as the realignment law took effect in October 2011, according to figures from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that were reviewed by The Associated Press, though there are competing theories on the reasons for the increase.

“We’re not quite sure what’s behind the trend. When you see such a drastic increase year-over-year … that kind of suggests that there’s been some kind of behavior change at the county level, in terms of how they are charging, whether they are choosing to charge individuals as second-strikers or not,” said Aaron Edwards, a corrections analyst with California’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Judges are imposing longer prison sentences for drug, property and other nonviolent crimes since criminal justice realignment became law, according to an analysis by the corrections department. Those sentences are increasing even as the length of sentences for violent crimes declined, leading to a net increase of 3.3 months in the average prison sentence since realignment.

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