Violence up in Calif. jails as crowding moves in

2-year-old law to reduce state prison populations shifted woes to counties

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — County jails that account for the vast majority of local inmates in California have seen a marked increase in violence since they began housing thousands of offenders who previously would have gone to state prisons.

Many of the 10 counties that account for 70 percent of California's total jail population have experienced a surge in the number of inmate fights and attacks on employees, according to assault records requested by The Associated Press.

The spike corresponds to a law championed by Gov. Jerry Brown in which lower-level offenders are sentenced to county jails instead of state prisons. Some jails have seen violence dip, but the trend is toward more assaults since the law took effect Oct. 1, 2011.

Brown sought realignment of the state's penal system in response to federal court orders requiring the reduction of prison overcrowding as the main way of improving medical and mental health treatment for state inmates. But the change has shifted many of the problems the state had experienced to local jails.

Nearly 2,000 more jail inmates were assaulted by other inmates in the first year after the realignment, about one-third more, than the previous year. Attacks on jail employees increased by 165.

A rise in the level of violence in jails was likely to be inevitable as more felons went to jails.

Yet the increase significantly outpaces the overall growth in population for the 10 counties surveyed. On average, the combined population grew 14 percent through 2012 while inmate-on-inmate assaults rose 32 percent and inmate-on-staff assaults rose 27 percent.

By June, the 10 counties' jails held nearly 58,000 inmates, about 7,600 more than their rated capacity.

Beyond the increased crowding, county sheriffs say the law also changed the nature of the inmates they are overseeing.

"You're seeing a little more gang influence inside the jails and a little more violence," said San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon, whose county has seen attacks on jail employees more than double. "Certainly, the sophistication level of these inmates is different."

Only those convicted of violent, sexual or serious crimes now go to state prisons, leaving so-called lower-level criminals to serve what can be yearslong sentences in local jails that were designed to hold offenders for no more than a year. Parolees who violate conditions of their release also now generally serve their time in county jails.

"The violence is just being transferred to the local facilities from the state system," said Fresno County Assistant Sheriff Tom Gattie, who oversees the county's lockups.

Fresno County is one of several counties being sued by the same law firms that forced the state to reduce prison crowding, and for the same reasons.

Linda Penner, a Brown appointee who is chairwoman of the California Board of State and Community Corrections, said officials plan to design new training for county jail deputies next year.

The AP collected statistics from the 10 counties with the largest jail populations through requests under the California Public Records Act after officials said there is no statewide database tracking inmate-on-inmate assaults. Of the 10 counties surveyed, eight had increases in their jail populations between Jan. 1, 2011, and Jan. 1, 2013, while Alameda and Sacramento counties had declines.

Sacramento County was the only one to see a decrease in inmate-on-inmate assaults, while Alameda, Los Angeles and Santa Clara counties saw declines in assaults on staff.

Simultaneously, the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation saw a 15 percent drop in inmate-on-inmate assaults within state prisons, while attacks on employees dropped 24 percent as the prison population dramatically declined last year.