Orange County jail population declines 15%; study says that’s due to Prop. 47

Orange County’s jail population decreased substantially last year, mirroring a statewide dip in the number of inmates, which a study released Wednesday said is the result of a controversial California law.

The Public Policy Institute of California’s study found that Proposition 47 – a 2014 voter-approved measure that reduced some felony theft and drug offenses to misdemeanors in order to lower inmate populations – was successful in its aim, reducing the number of county-held inmates statewide by nearly 9 percent.

Orange County jails saw an even more substantial decrease. The county’s average daily inmate population dropped 15 percent last year – from 6,805 in 2014 to 5,755, according to the Sheriff’s Department. That decline follows three years when county jails faced capacity concerns, after another state law, AB109, shifted some state prisoners to the supervision of county agencies.

“We had been stretched to the seams with AB109,” Orange County Assistant Sheriff Steve Kea said. “We literally added beds to Theo Lacy (jail), to the women’s jail, and we were looking to do that in a couple other housing units before Prop. 47 hit. What we saw in Prop. 47 was a greater reduction in the minor offenders that we don’t see as frequently now.”

“It definitely gave us some breathing room,” Kea said.

Wednesday’s study found that Prop. 47 reduced inmate populations by making it significantly less likely that low-level offenders would be booked upon arrest, jailed in advance of pretrial hearings, convicted or sentenced to lengthy jail stays. Combined, all those changes cut by half the number of inmates being held or serving time in county jails for Prop. 47 offenses.

The study examined jails and justice systems in 13 California counties, including Orange.

The research aligns with what police in Orange County have reported seeing at ground level, where officers said they are more likely to cite and release some misdemeanor offenders than book them into the county lockup. The low-level crimes reclassified to misdemeanors under Prop 47 include theft of less than $950 in goods and possession of small amounts of methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin.

Crime rose 23 percent in Orange County last year, according to an Orange County Register analysis.

Many local police officials blame the surge on Prop. 47, saying it makes it difficult to keep drug addicts and other low-level offenders locked up, leaving them on the streets to repeat the same crimes and steal to feed their addictions. Some criminologists say that link is not supported by research and warn that police have a history of attacking legislation they oppose before proper analysis has been conducted.

Kea said the demographic changes in county jails – caused both by the reduction in low-level offenders and the shift in state prisoners to county control – have altered elements of how the jail system operates.

That includes having fewer low-threat inmates to man kitchens and community work crews, allowing the county to shuffle around inmates while fixing up portions of the jails, and cutting back on a program that sentenced some misdemeanor offenders to wear GPS ankle bracelets rather than serve time in jail.

Despite the recent drop in jail population, the Orange County sheriff’s deputies union alleges that county jails were understaffed in January when three inmates escaped from Central Men’s Jail in Santa Ana. The union sued Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and the department in February, saying that staff reductions, unsafe jail conditions and operational missteps allowed the inmates to escape.

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