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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  1. Margo Judge
    Margo Judge 27 May, 2010, 14:48

    This is a very interesting article I did not realize what was at stake for county officials. Good reporting!

    Reply this comment
  2. StevefromSacto
    StevefromSacto 27 May, 2010, 18:11

    You read on all the other pages of CalWatchdog that we’re in a horrible budget crisis. We have to close schools and parks, deprive elderly Alzheimer’s patients of homecare, shut down our state’s only effective welfare to work program, etc., etc..

    But cut spending on prisons? NEVER!

    Reply this comment
  3. CalWatchdog
    CalWatchdog Author 28 May, 2010, 13:58

    FYI, StevefromSacto, spending should most definitely be cut on prisons. Laura’s article doesn’t take a position on prison spending. In my view, prison policy has been distorted by the prison guards, who mainly are interested in job protection and benefit and pay enhancement, and law-and-order conservatives who want to lock up more people — even low level drug offenders. The prison budget has grown more than many other budgets. Those are my personal opinions.
    –Steven Greenhut

    Reply this comment
  4. StevefromSacto
    StevefromSacto 31 May, 2010, 19:40

    I agree with all you say, including your comments about the prison guards union–which gives every other public employee union in the state a bad name–and the lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key conservatives (who I like to call the Vengence Lobby.)

    Reply this comment
  5. Spurwing Plover
    Spurwing Plover 11 June, 2016, 06:33

    From the same state that wants to disarm its citizens and run by Moonbeam the Stupid

    Reply this comment

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