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ACLU sees opportunities as thousands of criminals flood California counties

Mule Creek Prison's design capacity is for 1,700 prisoners. Today the prison houses 3,769 prisoners.
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation / EPA
File: Mule Creek Prison

The ACLU of Southern California on Wednesday released a report saying Los Angeles, Orange and other California counties should not repeat what it called the state’s “mistake” of locking up so many non-violent, non-serious criminals over the past three decades.

“We don’t need to be imprisoning so many people." said ACLU jails watchdog Hanna Dershowitz. "This is at enormous cost to our counties.”

Dershowitz said the report documents a “dramatic increase in spending on county jails” as California provides money for them to handle tens of thousands of less-serious criminals the state previously sent to its prisons.

L.A. County plans to use $100 million for example, to build a new women’s lockup. Dershowitz says counties should instead focus their resources on cheaper electronic monitoring and rehabilitation programs.

Many law enforcement officials argue locking up more people over the past three decades has helped dramatically reduce crime rates. In addition L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca has said he needs bed space to house the influx of prisoners.

But the ACLU report also says that nearly three-quarters of the people in county jails have not been convicted of crimes — they are awaiting trial — and many would pose no threat if released.

“Most of the time there isn’t really a meaningful risk assessment being taken and that’s partly because judicial offices don’t have the right information,” Dershowitz said.

The ACLU urges counties to end the practice of automatically requiring bail. The report points to Napa and Santa Clara as counties that use effective jail diversion programs.

“We’re at this crossroads. We can go in two directions. We can just basically be rearranging deck chairs.”

Or, she says, counties, with their new authority, can take a shot at curing California of what the report calls the “disease of over-incarceration.”