Ruling in a prisoners' rights lawsuit, a federal court ordered the state to cut overcrowding to 137.5 percent of capacity. At first the state resisted. But then, last May, the US Supreme Court upheld the ruling. The result is a far-reaching and controversial "realignment" plan – a move to reduce the state prison population by shifting thousands of inmates to local facilities and ordering others to serve time in community-based programs.
Under the plan, those convicted of "non-serious, non-violent, non-sex offenses" will serve their time in county jails instead of state prisons. People on parole or probation who violate their release conditions will serve their new sentences in county facilities, too. Already, since last October, corrections officials say they have reduced the state prison population by 20,000. California expects to save about $1.1 billion by the realignment's completion, which officials recently admitted will extend beyond the court-mandated June 2013 deadline.
Yet the shift is putting new burdens on counties, many of which don't have the money or jail beds to cope with the influx. They are being forced to release some inmates early.
Los Angeles County, which runs the largest local jail system in the country, with 17,200 inmates, is expected to receive another 8,300 prisoners under realignment. Despite reducing sentences and allowing some inmates to serve their time in the community, the county's jail population has gone up by 2,000 since October.
Still, the man in charge at the local level, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, insists the system will be able to handle the additional prisoners.
"What makes the difference is if you have education programs like we're doing in the Los Angeles County jail system," he says, referring to drug treatment and other programs. "If you have to resort to early release, at least they're better off than when they came in."