California’s jail population is rising as the result of the state’s realignment plan, which shifted offenders from the state prison system to local county facilities. But it’s not only the size of the California jail population that’s changing, it’s the composition. Jails hold sentenced inmates and pretrial detainees, and the majority of jail inmates in the United States have not been convicted of the offense that landed them behind bars. Since the Public Safety Realignment plan began, the number of jail inmates in California held pending adjudication has dropped 4 percent, while the sentenced jail population has increased 40 percent.
Under realignment, newly sentenced lower-level felons and supervision (parole and probation) violators who would have gone to state prison are now serving their time in county jails. This, in turn, has made the allocation of jail beds, already a scarce resource in many California counties, a critical public safety policy issue. Over the short term, we appear to be seeing a reallocation of those jail beds from pretrial to sentenced individuals. But this process is playing out differently in each of California’s 58 counties, based on pre-realignment jail populations, available jail capacity, budgets, crime problems, and other local factors.
Consider the 10 largest jail systems in California. Five of them (Alameda, Fresno, Kern, Los Angeles, and Riverside counties) saw their average daily population of sentenced inmates climb by 50 percent or more in the first nine months after realignment. By contrast, Sacramento and Santa Clara counties saw relatively small increases. In many of the large systems, the rise in sentenced jail inmates drove overall increases in the jail population. But in three of these large systems, the overall jail population fell due to declines in the pretrial population, with Alameda County seeing a large decrease (13.6 percent) in their jail population.
This variation early in the realignment era is an important reminder that not only is California undertaking a bold experiment in correctional policy, but also that this experiment is unfolding in very different ways at the local level.