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Study: Changes needed in prison realignment law

Study: Changes needed in prison realignment law
The Kern County Sheriff's Office Central Receiving Facility, downtown jail, is seen Wednesday, July 3, 2013, in Bakersfield, Calif.
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A study of Gov. Jerry Brown's 2-year-old prison realignment law released Friday recommends major changes that would relieve some of the burden from California's counties.

Under the law, lower-level offenders are sent to county jails instead of state prisons, sometimes for lengthy sentences. When they're released, they're supervised by local probation officers instead of state parole agents.

The study by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center recommends capping county jail sentences at three years and having ex-offenders with serious or violent records supervised by state parole agents, not county probation.

The study also says parolees who repeatedly violate terms of their release should go to state prisons and not county jails, where they often are released within days because of overcrowding.

Researchers interviewed 125 local police officials, sheriffs, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and probation officers for the $200,000 study, which was funded partly by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The consensus was "this happened too fast, the infrastructure was not ready, and we went too far. We need to pull back a little bit," said Stanford Law School professor Joan Petersilia, the center's co-director.

The Brown administration referred requests for comment to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Department spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said in an emailed statement that the study shows California has made "remarkable changes" in its criminal justice system since the law took effect. But she also acknowledged that "additional time and collaboration is needed at all levels of government to ensure ongoing success."

"The state is working with its partners in local government and law enforcement to ensure that Californians are protected while we continue to improve the criminal justice system," she said.

Covina Police Chief Kim Raney, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, said his organization will work with other local law enforcement officials next year to change state law so the report's recommendations can be implemented.

Raney and Petersilia acknowledged that most of the recommendations run counter to the demands of federal judges to reduce overcrowding in the state's major prisons. Brown sought the law to comply with federal court orders requiring the state to reduce crowding at state prisons to improve inmates' medical care.

Still, Raney said, "there are some obvious gaps that need to be adjusted or corrected."

Some criminals are being sentenced to decades-long terms in county jails that were designed to house inmates for less than a year. The long-term sentences are causing some of the same problems with medical and mental health care in county jails that led to the ongoing lawsuits against the state prison system.

"That's not sustainable," Raney said.

Moreover, some paroled sex offenders have repeatedly cut off their tracking bracelets, although a law that takes effect in January will keep in them in jail longer when they are caught. The report recommends that such offenders should be sent to state prison.

The realignment law has helped reduce the state's inmate population by more than 25,000 over the last two years. The Brown administration is in talks with a court-appointed mediator over a February deadline to further reduce prison crowding.

Federal judges gave the state until the end of the year to reduce its prison population by an additional 9,600 inmates. The state already has made plans to shift about 5,200 of them, sending them to private prisons in California, a new prison medical facility in Stockton and fire camps.

The governor is asking the federal court for a three-year delay regarding the remaining 4,400 inmates.

"I think you've got to look at all the options," Raney said. "Is it time to make an investment in prison capacity? I also think there's a movement toward sentencing reform, and using private bed space."
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