Within the proposed California state budget is language that, if passed, would force local county jail facilities to keep incarcerated individuals who otherwise would be sent to state prison local.
This change would presumably save the state nearly $243 million dollars, the main reason behind the legislation. Besides saving money, however, I believe this change would do much more.
It presents an incredible opportunity to reform our archaic sentencing structure, allowing it to finally adapt and change to meet today’s needs and demands.
For example, this forced change, if adopted by the legislature, will require prosecutorial agencies as well as the agencies that are charged with rehabilitating and punishing these sentenced individuals, to more seriously examine which crimes ought to send people into an incarceration system - versus some other alternative – perhaps a healthier, community-based alternative.
Under the current law, people sentenced to one year of custody or less remain in county jail. Anyone sentenced longer than one year would require custodial control at a state prison facility.
The proposal seeks to keep a percentage of people sentenced to state prison within county jail, to save the state money. Tax payer burden, therefore, is then shifted away from state to local government.
To accomplish this goal, many people already serving current, lesser offenses in county jails, would be released, making room for these new felons who otherwise would be sent to state prison.
In San Diego, for example, the local jail facilities can currently house only 5,500 people. As such, space is limited, and many "less serious" offenders would be forced to be released early.
Releasing hundreds of minor offenders from custody at long last allows the county to explore other sentencing mechanisms, rather than use the incarceration model: for example, ankle bracelet monitoring, steeper fine penalties, more community service options, and/or increased requirements to attend rehabilitative services and/or centers would suddenly look more attractive.
On another front, the proposal seeks to keep offenders who violate their terms of probation or parole in local custody as well. This modification - away from the automatic response of immediately putting violators of parole back into state prison - is another significant change.
For far too long, incarceration has been viewed as the answer to deal with convicted "criminals." This proposal forces change, and a welcome one. Perhaps a new model can be developed out of these financial hardships felt by everyone.
As such, I encourage everyone to call their state representatives and encourage this proposed change.
Even if the focus seems to be merely about saving the state money, in the long run, lack of money and shifting burdens from state to local governments should create better scenarios for our waning criminal justice system.
Thomas Hughes, Esq. was born and raised in San Diego, and got his Law Degree at Whitter Law School in Orange County, Ca. After three years prosecuting as a Riverside County deptuty District Attorney, Hughes returned to San Diego to start his own criminal defense firm. He has law offices in San Diego and Temecula, and also works as a technical advisor to CSI Los Angeles.