Home Resources CSSA Library Jail Overcrowding Whitepaper
Jail Overcrowding: A State and Local Crisis
February 2006

California is home to 116 local jail facilities located in 57 counties with a combined state rated capacity of 75,339 adults. These county jails house pre-sentenced arrestees awaiting adjudication for charged crimes, and convicted felons and misdemeanants sentenced for up to one-year confinement.

Most of these jail facilities are badly in need of expansion and/or renovation at an estimated cost of more than $6 billion. Due to severe budget problems at the local government levels caused by the economic recession that began in the early 1990's and the state property tax shift that began in 1992, counties have not been able to afford costly jail construction projects. There has been no stable revenue stream to pay debt service on the bonds needed to finance the renovation of existing jails and construction of much needed new jail beds. Also, new money did not exist to operate the new jails. Proposition 1A was approved by the voters in November of 2004 which will stabilize local revenue and prohibit unfunded state mandates, but it does not generate significant new revenue. Consequently, the supply of local jail beds has not expanded rapidly enough to accommodate demand brought on by population and crime growth.

For example in Sonoma County, the average daily population at the jail has increased three times faster than the general population since 1990, primarily because inmates are earning longer sentences and because many are repeat visitors. In 1999 the State Board of Corrections projected a need of more than 55,000 additional local adult jail beds. To date only 6,150 new beds have been added since 1999. Of this total, only 3,800 have been added since 2001. These additional beds have been helpful, but they don't begin to meet the total need.

The lack of revenue to construct/renovate jail beds coupled with increased demand for local jail beds has resulted in significant local jail overcrowding. The overcrowding problem has brought on prisoner lawsuits, which in turn has resulted in 20 counties having to comply with maximum population capacity limits enforced by court order. Because of these court-ordered capacity limits, Sheriffs and other jail administrators have no choice but to release sentenced prisoners early on a regular basis in all of these counties. Another 12 counties have instituted self-imposed jail population capacity limits to avoid costly litigation. The numbers are staggering: statewide in 2005, 139,000 sentenced prisoners were released from county jails prior to serving their complete sentenced time. In addition, 84,000 pre-sentenced arrestees were released. Jail overcrowding and early releases of convicted prisoners are not acceptable outcomes, and not what our citizens have a right to expect for an effective California criminal justice system that has always been able to meet the most important quality of life goal in our communities: Keeping the Public Safe.

Riverside County is one of the 20 counties statewide with jail population capacity limits. In 2005, 3,221 inmates were released early, up from 3,150 a year earlier. Some of their inmates only serve 5% of their sentence. Overcrowding and early releases cause the local jails to be more difficult to manage. All of Riverside's inmates are now felons; there is no room for misdemeanants. Since the felons are being released early, local jails are fast becoming holding cells for courts, since there will soon only be room for pre-sentenced arrestees.

Calaveras County is also one of the 20 with jail population caps. The jail was constructed in 1963 and the current legally imposed capacity is 65 adult inmates. Since 1963 the county population has increased from 12,000 to 44,000, twice the state's average growth rate. Crime has increased proportionally which has resulted in the jail's maximum capacity being exceeded regularly over the past ten years. Since 1995, 219 years of time went un-served due to early release of prisoners from jail, putting criminals back on the streets. In 2005 alone, 45 years of sentenced time went un-served due to early releases. The jail now operates as a felony only incarceration facility, with felons being released daily under the court ordered cap.

The Calaveras jail is not only in need of expansion, but rather a complete renovation. A major problem is that when constructed, the jail contained 30% asbestos. The entire building is out of compliance with Title 15 and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has had to "grandfather" the jail in order to keep it open. A more subtle impact of overcrowding and early release of sentenced prisoners is that criminals are more aware of the situation and regularly elect to have monetary fines transferred into jail time since they know they will only have to serve a fraction of their sentence. Also, alternative programs such as work release, electronic monitoring, drug court intensive supervision, and Proposition 36 drug programs are being shunned by offenders since they know that hard time will be shortened and is certainly easier than completing the programs. In 1992 a needs assessment of the Calaveras jail indicated the need for a new 96 bed adult facility to meet projected space requirements through 2010. An updated 2005 needs assessment projected the need to be 180 through 2020.

Early release is also an operational norm in Solano County, which has two overcrowded jails. The need is for a $30 million expansion of one jail and renovation of the other creating room for 224 additional inmates, a 20% increase.

In 2000, the Merced County jails had a legal capacity of 700 and were forced to release 1,160 inmates early. In 2003 that number increased to 1,493. In only the first month of 2005, Merced County released 183 inmates. Many of the older jails throughout the state were built in a "linear" configuration requiring many more staff persons to operate than the newer "pod" configuration. Consequently, reconstruction of existing jails and construction of new jails will result in annual operational savings.

Los Angeles County operates six adult detention facilities with an aggregate rated capacity of 19,767. In 2005 the county was forced to release early 56,000 sentenced inmates, 46,000 male and 10,000 female, in order to comply with their jail population caps.

This story is repeated in county after county. The jail overcrowding/early release trend must not be allowed to continue. Revolving door justice is making a mockery of the California public safety system.

Existing jail renovation and new construction is not the total answer. There is considerable need in all local jails for expanded space for programs designed to accommodate mentally ill offenders, inmates with drug and alcohol addictions, inmates with health problems, and vocational and general education programs. It is anticipated that all local applications for state bond funds will include plans for additional program space.

The prison system and county jails in California work together in the housing of sentenced inmates. In 2005 the state contracted with 57 counties to house 29,435 state prisoners in county jails, for a total of 465,165 prisoner days.

This is why California Sheriffs applauded Governor Schwarzenegger when he proposed a ten-year $222.6 billion Strategic Growth Plan as a part of his 2006-07 proposed State Budget. This plan would provide general obligation bond funding in the amount of $68 billion for critically needed infrastructure projects in five categories: Public Safety; Transportation; Education; Water/Flood Control; Courts and other improvements. The public safety component would provide $12 billion over ten years to add approximately 83,000 jail beds throughout California for local and state prisoners. The mix of funding is proposed to be $4 billion in state bond authority, $4 billion in local matching funds and $4 billion in state general fund payments to counties for housing state inmates in county jails. The Public Safety component of the Governor's Strategic Growth Plan is contained in AB 1833 by Assembly Member Juan Arambula of Fresno County.

The bill is very complex and will no doubt be revised as it moves through the legislative process. While CSSA is convinced of the local need for construction/reconstruction of jails, the current language in the bill indicating that local jails would be required to house state prisoners as a condition to receive state bond money for local needs, is a concern of the Sheriffs of California. We will be pressing for amendments more favorable to local law enforcement in the coming months. If the bill achieves a two-thirds vote in both the Assembly and Senate it will be placed on the next statewide ballot, most likely in November 2006.

CSSA is committed to advocating for a jail construction/reconstruction program similar to the very successful jail bond program in the 1980’s that raised and expended more than $2.1 billion in state bond revenue and local matching funds, and added 42,000 local jail beds. Five State bond measures were approved by the legislature and voters to finance these construction/renovation projects. We will be aggressively lobbying for a plan that will provide sufficient financing to begin the process of eliminating overcrowding and early releases at the local level. CSSA will be encouraging our local public safety partners, corporate partners, and over 42,000 Associate Members to help convince state legislators that improving and expanding local detention facilities is a top priority, worthy enough to be included the final 2006 infrastructure package, and will increase safety in all California communities.


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