The Governor's office has put forward a plan to reduce overcrowding in state prisons and save money by sending some prison inmates to county jails around the state.
I think it's a terrible plan, and I have to take issue with her office on this one, even though most of the time I've been supportive of the Governor's initiatives.
First of all, there is overcrowding in state prisons. However there is also overcrowding in county jails (that is certainly true here in Navajo county, where the jail is often full.) It is certainly true that a lot of prisoners don't need to be locked up and there are alternative forms of sentencing (and I wrote a post questioning whether all the people we incarcerate should be just a couple of months ago) but foisting the problem of which prisoners to keep in prison and which can be released to probation or some other status onto counties is the same kind of 'pass the buck' approach that we've seen at times from Washington and trying to make the problem 'local' does not constitute a solution. Looking at and modernizing sentencing guidelines is actually something that we should be doing both on a state and national level, but that isn't something that this plan does anything to address.
Cost is another issue. The state paying counties to house prison inmates is nothing new, and most county jails now include some state inmates. In general however these inmates are subject to careful monitoring, and the money that the state pays the counties is spent paying the extra costs. But with the significant number of new prisoners that are being recommended for transfer, it is likely that many counties will have to expand their facilities and hire more staff, and so far there is no indication that any money that the state sends them will be sufficient to cover all of this.
The most damning issue, in my opinion though is one of the categories of prisoners who will be tranferred. In some cases, I don't have a problem (for example they want to send repeat DUI offenders-- that's fine.) One category though is prisoners, often violent felons, in the last year of their sentence. The theory is that if they are in the last year (of presumably a much longer sentence) they will be less likely to behave violently, try to escape or do anything else that will tack anything onto their sentence. Unfortunately I don't see that as the case-- I've read plenty of stories about prisoners in the last year of their sentence doing things that earn them more time. Not all prisoners fit the stereotype of the patient older inmate scratching off numbers one by one on the wall of his cell. Many of them are impulsive or don't think things like that through very effectively. More ominously many are members of prison gangs or otherwise are more prone to be violent. Sending them into a county lockup will also give them a whole new pool of potential recruits. Besides all of that, some prisoners want to remain in prison because they can't function on the outside and they know that. So they will often commit crimes against guards or other inmates while in prison in order to buy themselves more time behind bars. These inmates are most likely to be dangerous in the last year of their sentence.
It is true that when prisoners get out of prison they often have no job prospects or any other way making a living except to return to a life of crime (a career path that is always available.) And we do need more job training programs, halfway houses and perhaps even an employment placement office for ex-convicts. But I'm not sure how having them finish their sentence in the county jail is going to help them when it comes time to find a job after they get out.
I am glad that under the leadership and at the recommendation of Mr. J.R. DeSpain, our county commission unanimously sent a letter to the Governor raising several objections to the plan. But ultimately it's not up to anyone in the county, but rather to bureaucrats in Phoenix. I hope that they and Governor Napolitano reconsider this decision and look for real solutions to prison overcrowding instead of handing the problem to the counties.