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LAO’s Criminal Justice System Report Released

January 22, 2013

Last week, the Legislative Analyst’s Office released its report “California’s Criminal Justice System: A Primer.”


The report details some of the recent changes to California’s justice system including Proposition 36 (2012) and the impacts of realignment.

Need for Coordinated Communications between Law Enforcement Agencies

This report underscores what is a growing concern among cities regarding a lack of sufficient, accurate data on ex-offenders being released into their communities. Local police can still consult parole agent records, but the Division of Parole within the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation no longer monitors non-violent offenders, so that data is dated. That has become a responsibility of the county probation departments, and there is great variation between counties as to how systematically information is shared between county probation and local police departments.

Realignment and Prop. 36 have highlighted gaps in effective communications between state, county and local law enforcement agencies that, once cured, will help tighten the monitoring net around ex-offenders, and improve the responsiveness of the public safety network.  The state may want to consider requiring systematic sharing of offender database information across all law enforcement agencies to help address this problem.

Of concern to cities, the Legislative Analyst’s Office report highlights the following:

Proposition 36

The most notable recent change is Prop. 36 (Three Strikes), approved by the voters in November 2012. This measure amended California’s Three Strikes law so that in order for a felon’s third offense, or “strike” to make him/her eligible for a sentence of 25 years-to-life, it must be a violent offense. Since this measure is retroactive, it will require the re-sentencing of thousands of offenders currently serving time in state prison. Depending on the nature of the offense for which these individuals have most recently been incarcerated, and the applicable criminal statutes, many felons are expected to have significantly reduced sentences as a result of the re-sentencing process. Some may even be sentenced to time served, in which case they will be eligible for immediate release.

The immediate impact on cities is that more ex-offenders will be released into their communities, tasking local law enforcement with additional monitoring responsibilities, on top of the existing workload resulting from realignment. Hard estimates on how many felons will be released are not yet available, but this development serves to underscore the need for improved communications between state, county, and local law enforcement entities which first came to light with realignment. For 2013 and beyond, a critical factor for local law enforcement to focus upon will be establishing improved communication systems with county probation departments, and if necessary, state parole agents, to systematically acquire information to assist local police in tracking and monitoring those released under Prop. 36. 

Lack of Data Complicates the Monitoring of Ex-Offenders

Both realignment and Prop. 36 heighten the need for local police to have quality, real-time information on newly released offenders returning to their respective communities. Prior to realignment, state parole agents had the responsibility for monitoring both violent and non-violent offenders’ movements and their compliance with the terms of parole. Post-realignment, in the case of non-violent offenders, to the degree they are being monitored, county probation departments have been tasked with this duty. However, local police must of necessity work hand-in-glove with probation to ensure an effective monitoring system. This will also be true of offenders released under Prop. 36, to the degree they are deemed to need additional supervision post-release. 

Managing Low-Level Offenders

Two practices resulting from realignment have aggravated the overcrowding problem in county jails, and increased the burden on local law enforcement. Split sentences (a combination of county jail and community service) and flash incarceration (short-term jail sentences used as sanctions for violations) are placing more pressure on already overcrowded jails, and inducing local sheriffs’ departments to order early releases of some offenders, or to decline to incarcerate them in the first place. 

Conditions in county jails include:

  • Sufficient capacity is an increasing problem;
  • More than half of California counties are operating under court-ordered or self-imposed jail population caps;
  • County jails are designed for housing offenders for short terms, up to one year, yet increasingly under realignment are called upon to hold them for multi-year sentences;
  • Counties are hard-pressed to address long-term offenders’ medical, mental health and rehabilitation (education, substance abuse) needs;
  • While the Legislature in 2012 approved $500 million in new bond funding to support construction and renovation of county jail facilities, counties are also facing increased operations costs;
  • Counties are now pressed to quickly devise the most cost-effective means of both delivering services and increasing their capacity to do so;
  • Many counties are seeing a need to find funds to hire more peace officer and treatment staff; and
  • When counties cannot adequately address the influx of offenders, resources of local police departments are strained in coping with the effects of that failure in the form of increased crime.

More Strategic Use of Criminal Justice Funds

The LAO Report cites a model that has worked well in managing the offender population in communities in Texas. In 2007, Texas implemented legislation to expand the availability of pre-trial, in-prison, and post-release programs by thousands of slots, including for substance abuse treatment, drug courts, mental health services, and intermediate sanction facilities. The goal was to reduce the state’s prison population. Between 2007 and 2010, during the worst period of the recession, parole revocation rates in Texas fell by 8 percent, and the prison population was reduced by more than 8,000 inmates.

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