The number of inmates in Orange County jails could swell and a $21.8 million contract to house federal detainees could be in jeopardy if California shifts state prisoners to local jails.
Sheriff’s officials are still waiting to hear details of how the state plans to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 prisoners, a mandate upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision this week the court ruled the state’s prisons have been overcrowded to the point where health services are severely lacking and prisoner’s rights have been violated.
But as the state looks for ways to reduce the prison population, the impact could be felt throughout local jurisdictions. State officials could decide to release convicted felons early, send inmates to local jails or keep inmates in county facilities instead of transferring them to state lockups in the first place. But law enforcement officials agree: the decision will likely have an impact on local crime rates and budgets.
“It’s still a moving target,” said Rick Dostal, executive director of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. “We’re monitoring this.”
Unlike the state’s overcrowded prisons, O.C. jails have been operating under capacity for months, a fact the sheriff’s department has taken advantage of to lease bed space to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Marshals. Facing more than $53 million in budget cuts in the last two years, the sheriff’s department has been able to stave off large cuts to the department thanks to those contracts.
But with the state mandated to reduce its population in the next two years, sheriff’s officials worry that bed space to be eventually filled, and the revenue from federal contracts could evaporate.
Assistant Sheriff Mike James, who heads custody and court operations for the sheriff’s department, said law enforcement officials — including department chiefs and the District Attorney’s office — have been meeting regularly to discuss the possible impact to the county.
One projection is that if the county keeps inmates that are sentenced in O.C. up to two years behind bars, who are convicted for non-violent and non-sexual offenses, the county’s 700 to 1,000 empty bed spaces could be filled within 14 months – without impacting the current contract with ICE, James said. Defendants who receive sentences longer than one year are currently transferred to state penitentiaries.
The O.C. jail population, without counting ICE detainees, is currently just under 5,000 inmates.
The financial impact could be felt in two ways: lost funding from federal contracts and responsibility to pay for housing state inmates.
“There has been discussion to offset cost from the state in some part, but it’s not on the same level,” James said.
“Of course, that’s all contingent on the state having that money,” Dostal said.
If the sheriff’s department loses the bed space and the contract with the federal government, it will be forced to go back to the county to ask for additional funds, or make deep cuts, he said.
Sheriff’s officials are looking at alternatives. One option, Dostal said, is to increase the number of inmates who are placed on ankle GPS monitoring bracelets instead of being jailed.
Law enforcement has already been working with the county’s Probation Department and increased the number of GPS devices being used in the last 18 months, James said.
But for county officials, it’s a waiting game, Dostal said. The state’s plan on how it will reduce the prison population is unclear.
County officials believe the state will likely try not to release inmates onto the streets. Instead, it is expected that Gov. Jerry Brown will push his plan for a large-scale transfer of nonviolent state prisoners to local jails, where costs are lower.
If the state decides to send current prisoners back to county jails, the assumption is that each county will receive its own inmates, Dostal said.
Of the 33,000 prisoners that are to be moved from state detention centers, about 1,500 are believed to be from O.C. That would be enough to fill up the empty bed space in local jails.
If state prisoners are released, James said there have been talks with the District Attorney’s office on how to track them.
But even if state prisoners are not released early, there is concern from law enforcement that it will nevertheless have an impact on public safety.
Another possible effect if state prisons are filled is that the court system court start issuing shorter sentences and the prisoners would be jailed locally. James said.
The Supreme Court on Monday gave the state two years to reduce the population, and two weeks to submit a plan.
According to the most recent crime statistics from the FBI, both violent and property crime has dropped across the country, including among Orange County’s largest cities.
“The worst case scenario is public safety suffers,” Dostal said.