Overcrowded jails put everyone at risk

03/27/2014

 

It’s a crazy round robin when it comes to dealing with the punishment side of the law. And we are bearing some harsh consequences for not being ahead of the game when looking at the macro-perspective.  


On Sunday, the Ventura County Star reported on the increased number of assaults on deputies at the local jails, which have been handling a larger inmate population due to a court order to reduce overcrowding in the state’s prisons.  Since 2011, low-level offenders convicted of nonserious, nonviolent, nonsexual offenses, who would previously have served their terms in prison, now serve them in jail, a situation known as realignment.  The average daily inmate population in the local jails since 2011 has increased from 1,395 to 1,657. The number of assaults on deputies has varied, but mainly has been on the rise: 2011 — 10; 2012 — 8; 2013 — 16; to date this year — 5.


According to officials from the sheriff’s department, the increasing number of assaults is based on the fact that the order of operations in jails doesn’t facilitate inmates with long-term sentences and that jail inmates have much more time on their hands to cause trouble — some of them even assaulting others in jail just to be moved to prison, where there are more amenities. And with more than 50 gangs represented in our jail population, the juggling act of routine activities and avoiding conflict is becoming increasingly more dangerous and difficult. As Sgt. Eric Buschow, a sheriff’s spokesman, put it, “This is a concentration of bad people, not a representation of the community as a whole, and there’s nothing in normal life that will prepare you for working in a jail.”


While in this immediate circumstance, things look grim. We urge legislators and county officials to seek more funding to perhaps better train deputies and guards at our local jails and/or to add more beds. Unfortunately, we have already seen one failed attempt just this month to obtain state funding to add a 64-bed medical unit for inmates with serious mental illness and chronic diseases at Todd Road Jail in Santa Paula. Apparently, the proposal to the state didn’t properly indicate county government would match 10 percent of the funding though county officials had said the funds would have been provided. We don’t think one failed attempt should be all that discouraging for future efforts. One thing, however, isn’t really resonating. No matter how much we shuffle around inmates or better train jail staff or add more beds, we are ignoring the elephant in the room.


The reality of the situation is that:


1.) Realignment won’t be going away anytime soon because it’s working for the state. The court-mandated state inmate prison population has nearly been met; it stands currently at 117,183 and it must fall to 116,651 by June 30. In 2011, when realignment began, the population was more than 144,000. If the state doesn’t comply with the court mandate, it will either have to move prisoners to private prisons out of state, costing the state millions of dollars, or it will have to set a number of inmates free before their terms are up.


2.) The United States ranked No. 1 in the world in 2013 for the highest number of prisoners per 100,000 of the national population at 716. Think what you will about wrongful incarceration in Russia or Cuba or just about any other nation — we have some serious problems here. We are clearly doing something very wrong.


We can continue to moan and groan about the exorbitant number of criminals incarcerated and on our streets. We can rage about overcrowding in our prisons. We can get upset about violence in our local jails with the increased population. But all of this is just a bunch of hot air in the long run unless we fundamentally change the way we view ourselves as a society and as individual communities that need our help to get out of this vicious cycle of crime and punishment. We as a society need to figure out how to fund and pool our resources toward bettering outreach, education, employment training, etc., in areas with adults and children who are the most at risk of falling into this cycle. We need to come together and logically approach this rather than continue with the BandAid fixes that put everyone at risk.

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