California is seeing a real increase in the number of offenders sent to its prisons, according to a recent article by the Associated Press, “Counties, where prosecutors have discretion in filing such charges, sent nearly 5,500 people with second felony convictions to state prisons during the 2013-14 fiscal year, a 33 percent increase over the previous year and the most since California enacted the nation’s first three-strikes law in 1994 that required life sentences for offenders convicted of three felonies.””
This is an unwelcome consequence to prison reform that required less serious offenders remain in-county, to be dealt with by county jails and supervision. Depending who you talk to you will hear different explanations. Prosecutors blame it on an increase in crime. Sheriff’s offices claim that serious offenders who should have been sent to prison in the first place, are getting their due. Public Defenders claim that their clients are the victim of local economics and a lack of space in local jails.
The numbers seem to favor the latter view, with counties that have traditionally sent the most offenders to prison (often with the most limited supervision and jail resources), returning to their pattern of moving criminals out of county to be paid for by state taxpayers. “Merced County more than tripled the number of second-strikers, from 23 to 79. The number doubled in Placer and San Joaquin counties and climbed 88 percent in Stanislaus County.”
Judges appear to be at the center of the prison reform reversal, According to the AP story, “Judges are imposing longer prison sentences for drug, property and other nonviolent crimes since criminal justice realignment became law, according to an analysis by the corrections department. Those sentences are increasing even as the length of sentences for violent crimes declined, leading to a net increase of 3.3 months in the average prison sentence since realignment.”
But this is a story with no clear culprit. D.A.s and judges are limited to six month jail terms (actually 90 days with credits) for jailed prisoners who violate their conditions of parole. Some claim that D.A.s and the courts are reacting to the lack of significant sanctions for less serious offenses. If so, local attitudes and economics may make prison reduction harder than anyone expected.