By Christopher Zoukis
Most jurisdictions struggle with how to relieve overcrowded prisons and jails, but at the same time avoid releasing inmates who are most likely to re-offend. After examining the experience of Los Angeles County coping with a California state policy that transferred many low-level felons from state prisons to county and city jails, Stanford University management professor Lawrence M. Wein believes he’s found the optimum way to achieve both goals, reducing inmate populations and lowering the rate of prisoners who get re-arrested after being released.
A professor at Stanford’s graduate school of business, Dr. Wein studied how L.A. County has fared under California’s “realignment” policy, adopted following a U.S. Supreme Court 2011 order for the state to reduce state prisons population by at least 25% within two years. Realignment transferred from state prisons to local jails over 100,000 inmates serving time for less serious non-violent and non-sexual felonies and for parole violations. As a result, overcrowding eased in California state prisons, but it increased in county and city jails.
Writing in a late December issue of Public Library of Science ONE, Wein used a mathemtical model of the flow of inmates through the Los Angeles County jail system, the world’s largest local jail system, and examined 64 different policies the county could have used. The Wein study appears to be the first published in this country to quantify the efficiency of numerous pretrial release and sentencing policies in affecting overcrowding and recidivism.
Based on those results, he identified the solution offering the most efficient way to reduce both jail overcrowding and re-offending by released inmates: split sentences, i.e. using pre-trial releases so defendants charged with low-level felonies can stay at liberty until they are convicted and sentenced. Using split sentencing for all low-level offenders would both lower jail populations 20% and cut the recidivism rate 7%, Wein predicted, concluding split sentences provide the best tradeoff between reducing inmate population and protecting public safety.
Although split sentencing was seen as more effective than pretrial release at attaining both goals, Wein did not receommend that it replace pretrial release, but saw pretrial release alone as incapable of achieving reductions in both prison population and recidivism. California seems to agree: since 2015, a new state law requires split sentencing between jail time and probation for low-level felonies. (Wein and others note some state judges remain reluctant to use split sentencing, however.)
There seems to be ample opportunity for making gains by lowering the number of prisoners awaiting trial. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ most recent annual survey sampling local jails (done in mid-year 2014 and reported last June), approximately 60% of inmates have not yet been tried on a current charge, but are awaiting their day in court; only 40% of inmates have been convicted and either serving their sentence or awaiting sentencing.
Shockingly, almost all (95%) of the growth in local jail populations over the past 15 years is due to increasing numbers of inmates who haven’t been convicted but are still awaiting trial. This backlog is again more evidence of why only widespread reforms to our attitudes about crime and punishment will ease overcrowding in America’s prisons.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com