California counties are getting a dollars-and-cents lesson the state learned the hard way: Putting people behind bars isn't cheap — and there aren't any easy alternatives.

No politician wants to be handcuffed to the next Willie Horton, and voters usually support stiff sentences. Yet it's safe to assume that citizens demanding more for their tax dollars aren't thinking about state prisons or county jails.

In California, however, federal judges are.

The state remains under order to reduce crowding in prisons that, until recently, were filled to twice their design capacity. To comply, the state has transferred thousands of non-violent inmates to county jails.

Now, counties are starting to feel the pressure.

In Sonoma County, as Staff Writer Julie Johnson reported, about 20 percent of jail inmates would have gone to prison prior to the 2011 realignment. One local inmate is serving 15 years in a jail where the maximum term used to be one year.

"We are hiring staff, but that isn't keeping up with influx of inmates," Sheriff Steve Freitas said. "We have extreme overtime rates and worker-related injuries and burnout related to that."

Looking ahead, he expects a hefty cost increase in health care costs when the county negotiates a new contract for medical services in the jail. The present contract expires next year. Health care, Freitas said, "is truly the 800-pound gorilla."

It's easy to say inmates aren't entitled to medical care, but the courts have ruled otherwise. A panel of federal juges ruled in 2009 that health care in state prisons was so poor that it constituted cruel and unusual punishment, resulting in the order to reduce the inmate population. The state's challenges failed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Since 2010, the prison population has declined from 163,000 to about 120,000. Voters helped by approving a measure to adjust three-strikes sentences, one of the few recent initiatives to reduce the prison population.

Gov. Jerry Brown argues the state has done enough, despite falling about 9,000 inmates short of an order to get prisons down to 137.5 percent of design capacity. The federal judge overseeing the case is threatening to hold Brown in contempt, meaning it's unlikely that the court order will be relaxed.

That means that counties aren't likely to see much relief either, although Brown has proposed swapping some inmates who are near their release dates for those serving the longest sentences in county jails.

Proposition 30, the temporary tax measure approved by voters in November, included some funding for county jails, but Freitas and other sheriffs say it won't alleviate all of their added costs.

Brown met recently with the sheriffs. Those talks should continue, with an emphasis on funding and creative ways to reduce costs, including home confinement and other alternatives to incarceration.

The state should initiate similar talks with legislative leaders and the federal overseers with a goal of getting the state's prison population under control without losing control of the budget.

'You just gotta get out of here:' Read the Mercury News story here


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