California has gone through an unprecedented realignment of its prison system shifting responsibility for a significant number of prisoners from state prisons to local county jails. This realignment has also shifted responsibility from the courts to the sheriff in what could be called an inappropriate shift of responsibility from the judiciary to the executive branch.
County lawmakers can actually grant the authority to a sheriff to release individuals who are in jail on bond pretrial, a significant portion of the county jail population. The sheriff will also make decisions on diversion like electronic monitoring, house arrest and work release.
The change has come as a result of California's Prison Realignment legislation which to effect on October 1. The realignment changes the punishment for a large group of felonies. Some California counties were using state prison for offenders who committed these low-level, non-violent felonies. When the state was ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court to reduce its prison population, the low-level non-violent offender along with parole violators were targeted as inmates who should not be in state prison.
However a review by The Associated Press has revealed that crimes that qualify for local sentences include at least two dozen offenses that can be considered serious or violent, reported KPCC-FM.
Among them: Involuntary manslaughter, vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, killing or injuring a police officer while resisting arrest, participating in a lynching, possession of weapons of mass destruction, possessing explosives, threatening a witness or juror, and using arson or explosives to terrorize a health facility or church. Assault, battery, statutory rape and sexual exploitation by doctors or psychotherapists are also covered by the prison realignment law and carry sentences that will be served in a county jail instead of state prison.
"These crimes include a variety of offenses that would strike many civilians as far from trivial," Public Policy Institute of California researcher Dean Misczynski wrote in a recent analysis of the new law.
A list of 500 criminal code sections to be covered by the law was compiled by the California District Attorneys Association and posted late last month to its website. The state attorney general's office confirmed the association's review was accurate but said defendants with a previous felony conviction or those charged with enhancements would still be sent to state prison.
California counties don’t have the space to house all the inmates currently in county jails as well as the new realigned population. Counties may have to release inmates early to make space for more dangerous or violent offenders.
Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley has been making noise about the problem, according to the LA Weekly News. “I'm suggesting that the measurable crime rate is going to spike…There's going to be approximately 8,000 individuals sent to state prison -- non-violent, non-serious, non-registerable sex offenders -- that will by law will have to serve their sentences locally. The current county jail system does not have the capacity to handle that under even optimistic, rosy scenarios.”