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Los Angeles County Jails Try to Solve Overcrowding Problem

Two new state laws have already reduced the number of new inmates and the general prison population.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

For years, Los Angeles County’s jail system has had too many inmates for their crowded, aging facilities. However, according the Board of Supervisors’ report released on Tuesday, law enforcement officials said that since the passage of Proposition 47, which downgraded many drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, the jail system saw a sharp decline in new inmates. Additionally, the overall prison population has begun to decrease, although it is too early to predict if the trend will continue.

In November and December, the first two months after the penalty-reduction law took effect, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office reported that felony sentences of prison, jail, or probation had dropped by 41 percent from the same period in the previous year. The number of inmates in county jails decreased from about 18,700 at the end of October to fewer than 16,000 at the end of December as well, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Fewer new inmates means jailers no longer have to cut sentences short and grant early release to many offenders in order to create more room. The Los Angeles Times reported that for years, most men convicted of lower-level crimes served only 20 percent of their sentences, and women served 10 percent. As a result of this policy change, most inmates are serving 90 percent.

“We’re going to be in a state of dynamic flux in the jail system for the next six months or so,” Assistant Sheriff Terri McDonald told supervisors and the Los Angeles Times.

In addition to reducing the gravity of lower level crimes down to misdemeanors, another California law went into effect this month, which mandates split sentencing throughout the state. Split sentencing refers to offenders being given a shorter term behind bars followed by a period of mandatory probation. Until recently, less than five percent of L.A. County inmates received split sentences, but due to the change in policy by the district attorney, the number reached 16.6 percent by the end of 2014. Probation officials have advocated for widening the use of split sentencing, arguing that ex-cons who are on probation are more likely to seek out drug treatment, mental health counseling, and other programs that reduce their risk of reoffending and committing new crimes.

Lenore Anderson, of the think tank Californians for Safety and Justice, is one advocate for using evidence-based alternatives to incarceration, which could include split sentencing.

"And so what we want to see is community corrections strategies in place that can reduce the number of people cycling in and out and ultimately be much more smart about how we do public safety," Anderson told Southern California Public Radio.

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