|Credit Michael Czerwonka for WSJ.|
California's 58 counties have varied widely in how they manage the inmate shift, known as realignment. Residents in some areas, such as San Francisco, generally have embraced seeking alternatives to incarceration. But as Kern and other counties only begin to experiment with new methods, local residents have protested that people are being let out of jail too early.
"I call it 'justice by geography,' depending on where you get arrested," said Barry Krisberg, a criminal-justice expert at the University of California, Berkeley.
The total population in the state's 33 prisons has fallen by 16% to 120,946 from 144,138 in late September 2011—days before realignment began, according to the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Under realignment, people who would have gone to state prison for low-level crimes in the past will now be kept under county supervision. Low-level crimes range from drug sales to deadly hit-and-run accidents, under the state's classifications. The counties get state money to cover the added costs, and sheriffs are encouraged to avoid overcrowding in their own jails by finding alternatives to locking people up.
The change is being closely watched by public-safety experts and other states, which are dealing with their own overcrowded prisons. California's realignment "certainly has to be one of the most dramatic shifts in responsibility in American history," said Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Center on the States' Public Safety Performance Project.
Mr. Gelb and other experts say there is increasing evidence that programs like the ones Mr. Youngblood is trying—such as electronic monitoring along with special types of counseling—can keep people from re-offending more effectively than keeping them behind bars. Still, the policies have been met with skepticism in many California counties.
In Merced County, southeast of San Francisco, residents slammed officials in May after a woman convicted of driving under the influence in an accident that killed a local firefighter was sent home on electronic monitoring after serving less than a day of her sentence, according to a spokesman for the county sheriff. In San Joaquin County, residents protested in April when a man who had been released early from jail then tried to kill his girlfriend.
Officials in Calaveras County disagreed so strongly over whether to allot a big portion of state money for rehabilitation programs for offenders that the county was left unable to spend about $475,000 until they resolved the fight in April.
The stakes are particularly high in Kern County, with a population of about 840,000. The county has the second-highest per capita property-crime rate and the sixth-highest violent-crime among the state's counties, according to 2009 state data.
So far, under realignment, the number of people in Mr. Youngblood's jails has risen to 2,410 on average from 2,121 last October. The sheriff is seeking funding for a 790-bed jail.
At the same time, 981 inmates are supervised with electronic monitoring and other out-of-custody programs—almost double the 499 in October. "This is our virtual jail," said Sgt. Greg Gonzales, Mr. Youngblood's realignment coordinator.
Rudy Herrera is among those inmates. The 24-year-old, who had already been to state prison and county jail several times, was convicted in February of possessing stolen property. Under the old system, he would have been sent to a state lockup for as long as several years. Under realignment, he served less than four months in a Bakersfield jail, including 90 days in a drug-abuse treatment program. Now Mr. Herrera stays at home with a monitor strapped to his ankle, typically leaving only for work and his drug-treatment sessions. "It keeps me focused," he said.
While every county is its own universe, I think we can discern two main approaches. The old-school approach, which dangerously resembles that of state prisons of yesteryear, is to just build and expand, to counter the short-term expansion in inmate numbers. The new approach is to find alternatives to incarceration and to invest in rehabilitation and reintegration with the hopes of reducing recidivism in the long run. Which approach do you think is wiser?
props to David Greenberg for the story.