Report Reveals 3 California Counties Missed the Mark on Inmate Overcrowding

The California State auditor’s office claims Los Angeles, Alameda and Fresno counties haven’t properly allocated resources meant for their overcrowded jails and aren’t reporting where enough of that money went.

In this April 16, 2020, photo Sonia Munoz, left, and Christopher Lumpkin, custody assistants, poses for a picture at the hospital ward of the Twin Towers jail in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

(CN) — A new report released Thursday by the California State Auditor examined inmate conditions in Los Angeles, Alameda and Fresno county jails following a prison realignment bill passed by the state in 2011.

The original bill was intended to reduce state prison populations across California by transferring certain inmates to county jails, thus relieving inhumane prison conditions that stem from overcrowding. The goal was to transfer inmates sentenced for nonviolent, nonserious, nonsexual-related offences to local jails, thus reducing prison overcrowding and lowering costs.

Due to their overwhelming numbers, many prisoners in California weren’t receiving proper medical care and mental health services, a problem exacerbated by their being packed into cell blocks like a dozen sardines in a tin can designed for eight. The unintended consequence of realignment is that some county jails have now themselves become overcrowded, merely offloading the burden to the local level.

The auditor’s report found jails in Los Angeles and Fresno counties have remained overcrowded for years, and the counties haven’t done enough to alleviate that congestion.

“While the State Title 15 requirement for number of inmates housed is lower than the current population of the Fresno County Jail, the Fresno County Jail is not over-crowded,” Sheriff Margaret Mims of Fresno said in a statement Thursday. “Fresno County is subject to a federal court consent decree in the Cruz litigation, which governs jail population. Our jail operates in strict compliance with that consent decree.”

In addition, it claims Alameda and Fresno counties aren’t sharing enough information with state officials about how funds are being spent, meaning the state Legislature isn’t receiving accurate information with which to act. Mental health care is another major concern across the board.

“Alameda and Fresno lack sufficient information regarding whether inmates have mental illnesses, which hinders their ability to make critical housing and care decisions to keep inmates safe,” according to the report. On a positive note, Los Angeles County “conducts comprehensive mental health screenings for all jail inmates and mental health providers share relevant information regarding inmates’ mental health history to jail staff.”

The county jails housing these inmates were typically built prior to realignment, and facilities that weren’t designed to hold inmates longer than one year are now forced to house some for 10 years or longer. All three counties were found to lack adequate outdoor and educational facilities, and none provided suitable rehabilitation programs for inmates serving sentences longer than three years.

“Officials at the three counties we reviewed stated that they lack the facilities and resources to provide a number of vocational trade programs to prepare inmates for reentry to the community,” said the auditors in their report.

That alone creates a negative feedback loop which makes it harder for individuals leaving jail to transition back into society — thus, overcrowding begets more overcrowding. Without solid vocational training programs, inmates can’t learn the skills that could pave the way to a better life following their release, and recidivism naturally follows.

“Realignment and advances in rehabilitation practices and requirements has definitely placed a burden on outdated facilities in Fresno County,” added Sheriff Mims in her statement. “Fresno County is on the verge of completing new construction of its West Annex Jail facility, which will have better facilities for the provision of classes, services and outdoor recreation. We agree with the auditor’s recommendation that inmates sentenced to more than three years should serve that time in State prison.”

The auditor’s report also claims the Corrections Board has “too narrowly interpreted the scope of realignment funding” and isn’t providing counties with sufficient guidance, hindering both the governor’s and the Legislature’s ability to evaluate the consequences to public safety.

The state allocated $6 billion to California counties for fiscal year 2019-2020, but these three counties reported where less than 20% of that funding went, leaving a gaping hole for state officials charged with oversight. The counties have a large surplus of funds remaining, which officials said could be better spent improving conditions for inmates.

“State law requires each county to have a Community Corrections Partnership committee (Partnership Committee), which, among other things, is required to oversee realignment spending and make recommendations for effective use of all realignment funds the State provides,” according to the report. “Additionally, the State established the Board of State and Community Corrections (Corrections Board) to provide statewide leadership in criminal justice and report counties’ realignment efforts to the Governor and the Legislature each year.”

The counties all claimed these committees have had a positive effect by creating a partnership with the state that makes reducing recidivism a collective effort among county departments and community organizations.

“Alameda, Fresno, and Los Angeles counties, and the Corrections Board, agreed with some of our recommendations and stated that they would take actions to implement them,” concluded the report. “However, each of the counties and the Corrections Board disagreed with our interpretation that state law requires them to oversee and report on all public safety realignment accounts.”

Officials from Los Angeles, Alameda and Fresno counties did not respond to requests for comment.

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