State to foist inmates on counties

MAY 27, 2010


Although state legislators say that state-to-county unfunded mandates are illegal, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to use an exemption in sentencing laws to force counties to take title to state law offenders.

On Wednesday, the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee took up Gov. Schwarzenegger’s plan to transfer future nonviolent offenders to county jails. The governor proposed the plan in his May budget revision package as a cost-cutting solution to the state’s rising costs for corrections. Qualifying non-violent offenders with sentences of three years or less would be required to serve their sentence in a county jail. The counties would not be reimbursed for the first year of this program, but for the 2011-12 fiscal year the state plans to refund counties with half of the money they save.

“Wouldn’t that be illegal?  How do you transfer a cost to the county with out transferring any revenue to cover it?  Wouldn’t that be an unfunded local mandate?” objected Sen. Roderick Wright, D – Los Angeles, whose home county jails are already severely overcrowded and underfunded.

The representative from the Department of Finance responded, “The penal code changes where there are changes in the sentence, and the punishments are not subject to mandates criteria, so anytime there is a change in the law where fewer inmates would come to state prison, [this is not] a state-reimbursable mandated local program. This is a change in a punishment for a crime.”

Unfunded mandates, legal or not, reduce voters’ ability to hold lawmakers responsible. County jails do not have the capacity to hold the number of offenders for as long as recommended, and many have official population caps that they will not exceed.  If required to accommodate more offenders, county sheriffs could be forced to release some earlier than scheduled. Consequentially, if the county goes bankrupt because its jails are packed, or if crime increases because prisoners are getting out early, who will voters blame?  County officials are the intuitive scapegoats, but it was the governor’s idea, and the Senate’s approval could set the plan in motion.

Sen. Mark Leno, D – San Francisco, quoted Schwarzenegger, who said, “We should be looking at the way the prison system is run where we could save billions of dollars.” Leno also noted that Schwarzenegger favors a constitutional amendment limiting corrections spending to 7 percent of the budget, although corrections spending currently hovers around 10 percent of the budget.

“If there are billions to be cut from corrections… I’m there,” said Leno.

But if the governor’s solution includes more unfunded-mandates-in-sheep’s-clothing, Mr. Leno shouldn’t expect to be “there” anytime soon.

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