The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled 5-4 that California’s overcrowded prisons violate the Constitution. The result of that decision — shedding 33,000 inmates from state prison cells — could be coming to county jail near you.
Earlier this year, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed legislation that would relieve overcrowding by sending some 30,000 nonviolent offenders to county jails.
The plan remains under debate among lawmakers, but it has one major hitch. Many county jail systems, including the one in Santa Barbara County, are already crammed past capacity. Grand juries have warned of overcrowding in Santa Barbara County’s jails. Sheriff Bill Brown and an unusually broad coalition of civic and business leaders put a sales tax on the ballot that would have generated local funds and unlocked $56 million in state funding to build a new jail in Santa Maria. It failed.
While prisons swelled, budgets for educating and preparing prisoners for reintegration into civil society dwindled. The Golden State’s prison system morphed from a model of inmate rehabilitation into the nation’s biggest recruitment program for dangerous gangs.
But we are where we are. Violent and hardened criminals cannot go free on our streets, and overcrowded county jails cannot accept new inmates without additional funds to cover costs. Whatever solution Gov. Brown arrives at, it must be fiscally sound, respect public safety and cast an eye toward lasting prison reform.