More than 175,000 people were sentenced to California county jails instead of state prisons in the last eight years because of sweeping changes to the state’s justice system, report the Los Angeles Times and the Marshall Project. The reforms have eased prison crowding and they were supposed to help people convicted of nonviolent crimes by letting them serve their sentences close to home in county jails with lots of education and training programs. It hasn’t worked out that way in some places. Jails built to hold people for days or weeks have struggled to handle long-term inmates, many with chronic medical and mental-health problems and histories of violence.
Statewide, assaults on jailers increased almost 90 percent from 2010, the year before prison downsizing began, to 2017. Mental-health cases, which had been declining in jails, have risen. County spending on medicine for inmates has jumped to nearly $64 million in 2017 from $38 million in 2010. Legal challenges over inmate treatment have expanded to about a dozen county lockups. Deaths in California jails jumped 26 percent after they started receiving long-term inmates, peaking at 153 in 2014 before falling to 133 in 2017. Problems have been acute in counties with old facilities, tight budgets and a many long-term inmates, including Sacramento, San Bernardino, Fresno and San Diego, which had a spate of suicides this spring. Los Angeles County has had to deal with the largest number of these inmates: 45,000, or about a quarter of the total since 2010. Overall, though, “California is a pretty remarkable study,” says corrections expert James Austin. “The whole system has dropped about 220,000 people” without the surge in crime many critics feared.