On Monday California Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 109 into law, which amends the state’s options for imprisonment of offenders that commit felonies. The Los Angeles Times reports that this bill will impact tens of thousands of felons convicted of nonviolent crimes. Specifically, AB 109:
Would provide that a felony is a crime that is punishable with death, by imprisonment in the state prison, or notwithstanding any other provision of law, by imprisonment in a county jail for more than one year. The bill would generally provide that felonies are punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for 16 months, or 2 or 3 years. The bill provides exceptions to imprisonment in a county jail for a variety of felonies, including serious felonies and violent felonies, as defined, felonies requiring registration as a sex offender, and when the defendant has a prior conviction for a serious or violent felony, or a felony subjecting the defendant to registration as a sex offender, among other exceptions [emphasis added].
The bill’s opponents, including many Republican legislators, argue that this bill will undermine the justice system. Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley told the Los Angeles Times, “County jails are also crowded, and were never designed to offer the same rehabilitation programs as state prisons. Public safety requires appropriate incarceration and deterrence… and both of those will suffer under this proposal.”
Conversely, supporters believe this bill will provide a number of benefits, as Gov. Brown said in a press release, “Cycling these offenders through state prisons wastes money, aggravates crowded conditions, thwarts rehabilitation and impedes local law enforcement.” California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Matt Cate supports the measure, telling the Los Angeles Times:
(California’s state prisons) took in 47,000 inmates last year who were parole violators sentenced to 90 days or lessâ€¦ it makes no sense to go through the elaborate intake process, which takes an average of three months, for inmates who are going to spend only a few months behind bars. (California’s state prison) system is the most expensive in the free worldâ€¦ You can’t do worse [emphasis added].
Arguably the most pressing benefit of AB109 would be relieving California’s chronically crowded state prisons. As recently as 2009 the Golden State’s state prison system was at 178% of design capacity, far in excess of the national average of 110% among states. Of course, this benefit would be undermined if the overcrowding were simply transferred to County prisons, so the details of how this will be implemented remain unseen. Further, Associated Press reports AB 109 hinges on scarce funds to offset increased local government costs that may not be available in FY 2012.
Last year Reason Foundation published Public-Private Partnerships for Corrections in California, a study that provides a number of policy tools to reduce the state prison system’s overcrowding crisis and improve efficiency. Many of the policy tools included in the study are being implemented today (measures like AB109 were not included in the study). For a comprehensive update of California’s prison system, see Reason Foundation’s Annual Privatization Report 2010: Corrections.