An Inland Empire lawmaker's bill, aimed at easing overcrowding in local jails by requiring that inmates serving sentences of three or more years automatically go to prison, was voted down in a Senate committee last week.
Sen. Bill Emmerson, R-Riverside, introduced Senate Bill 1441 with the intent of amending legislation signed into law a year ago by Gov. Jerry Brown that allowed convicted felons to be sentenced to multiple years in counties' detention facilities, whereas before anyone sentenced to more than a year behind bars went to the penitentiary.
The Riverside County Board of Supervisors , just a short time before it was defeated in the Senate Public Safety Committee. The panel's five Democrats voted against it, while the committee's two Republicans voted in favor.
"My legislation would have (had) a minimal impact on the prison population," Emmerson said. "However, shifting these prisoners to county jails will put a huge strain on their limited bed space and will lead to releasing individuals early and jeopardizing public safety."
Emmerson sought to alter Assembly Bill 109, the Public Safety Realignment Act, so that all convicted felons sentenced to more than 36 months for any one or series of offenses be sent to prison.
"Clearly, realignment wasn't fully vetted before it took effect last October and continues to create problems for local law enforcement," Emmerson said. "Prisons may be overcrowded, but our local jails were not built or equipped to house long-term offenders and are dealing with overcrowding issues of their own."
Riverside County Undersheriff Colleen Walker told the board Tuesday that every sheriff in the state was behind SB 1441.
According to Executive Office documents, as of this month, 138 inmates -- or about 4 percent of the total inmate population in the county's five jails -- are serving three or more years. Another 781 inmates are locked up locally due to AB 109, which requires that individuals convicted of crimes that fall into the non-violent, non-serious, non-sexually oriented category are to be incarcerated in county jails.
So-called "non's" or "N3s" -- including DUI offenders, drug users, child abusers and identity thieves -- are also to be supervised by county probation officers, instead of state parole agents, as was traditionally the case.
According to a state Senate report attached to SB 1441, realignment never spelled out a "term-based threshold" beyond which inmates, even in the "non" category, would have to be incarcerated in one of California's 33 prisons. The result is that some convicts in local correctional facilities are serving terms in excess of 10 years.
A county probation report released in February noted that jails were never designed to house inmates for extended periods comparable to prison life, lacking diversionary programs, recreational space and other accommodations. Also, because the county is under a federal court order to provide a bed to each inmate, whenever the jail system reaches maximum capacity, sheriff's officials resort to releasing low-level offenders from custody early.
California is also under pressure to slash its prisoner population. Two inmate lawsuits against the state alleging "cruel and unusual punishment" led to a federal court decree in 2010 that, because of overcrowding, required the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to reduce the state correctional population to 137.5 percent of design capacity.
By June 2013, the state is supposed to have 23,000 fewer prisoners, according to the court order. The CDCR reports that between last June and December, 11,000 inmates left state custody -- a reduction largely attributed to realignment.