Riverside County Sheriff Stan Sniff reported this week that since Jan. 1, his department has “been forced to early release 5,470 inmates” from local jails as a result of overcrowding.
Under a federal court order, Sniff said he is required “to release inmates anytime our Riverside County jail system exceeds [its] official rated capacity.”
While Sniff contends with crowded county jails, state prisons could be impacted on Nov. 6 when California voters decide the fate of third strike offenders and inmates sentenced to death.
The sheriff has repeatedly stated that jail overcrowding is due to which was signed into law last year and mandates that most offenders convicted after Oct. 1, 2011 of a non-violent crime be sentenced to county jail, not state prison.
The legislation was crafted in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that found California’s state prison system was overcrowded and needed to dramatically reduce its inmate population.
“It was the State's complete failure to address its chronic and severe prison overcrowding over the years that ultimately is directly responsible for the recent and precipitous transfer of thousands of inmates to our local jails and to local oversight, all under California Assembly Bill 109 (Realignment) in 2011,” Sniff said this week. “This has had a disastrous impact on our local jails across California, causing increasingly severe overcrowding problems.”
Sniff argues that AB 109 was not thought through carefully, and the legislature “has not cleaned up the bill's serious flaws.”
He went on to say that the Sheriff’s Department will put together a staff package over the next few weeks of recommended legislative fixes for AB 109.
The Question For Voters
As law enforcement and elected officials grapple with local jail overcrowding, two statewide initiatives are on the ballot this year that could impact California’s prison population.
Proposition 36 asks voters if they want to revise the state’s Three Strikes law. If passed, Prop. 36 would mandate that if a felon with two prior serious or violent felony convictions gets a third strike, life in prison would only be imposed if the third conviction is also “serious or violent.”
Prop. 36 proponents maintain anyone convicted of an “extremely violent crime” — such as rape, murder, or child molestation — will still receive a life sentence no matter how minor the third strike crime.
By shortening the sentencing for specific third strike offenders, Prop. 36 proponents argue more than $100 million in California taxpayer money would be saved annually. Critics urge Prop. 36 will release dangerous criminals early.
Under AB 109, a felon convicted of prior serious or violent crimes is sentenced to prison – not county jail – for subsequent crimes.
Also on the ballot this year is Proposition 34, which, if passed, will repeal California’s death penalty.
Proponents argue Prop. 34 would save taxpayer dollars if passed; opponents say the initiative costs the state.
Impact On Local Jails And State Prisons
Pass or fail, Prop. 34 is not expected to have an immediate impact on the state’s prison population given California's current moratorium on Capital Punishment. As for how much impact Prop. 36 could have on the state’s prison population, opponents of the measure claim up to 3,000 prisoners could potentially receive shortened sentences.
The Yes on 36 camp is not making claims that passage of the proposition will alleviate local jail overcrowding, but according to the “Yes on 36, Three Strikes Reform” campaign sponsored by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Prop. 36 “will help ensure that there is room in our prisons for truly dangerous criminals … .”