CA Fwd and Riverside County put data to work on jail overcrowding

150 150 Nadine Ono

(Photo Credit: Angel Cardenas)

Since 2011, when the state enacted the Public Safety Realignment program, the jail populations of many counties have risen to the point where they are unsustainable. And, several counties, including Riverside County, are facing court-ordered population caps.

One of the ways the county has responded is to build the new East County Detention Center in Indio, which will add 1,200 beds when it opens in late 2017. But building more jails alone won’t solve the problem of overcrowding. So in 2014, the county partnered with California Forward (CA Fwd) and created the Justice System Change Initiative (J-SCI) team to consult and provide additional solutions that will not only have long-lasting effects, but be cost effective as well.

“That work has come into fruition in 2015,” said Jim Mayer, president and CEO of CA Fwd. “We were able to come up with some very critical data analysis of the use of their jails that has really prompted an important conversation among the head of each of those departments–the Sheriff, the District Attorney’s office, the public defender, probation, the director of public health and behavior health–and they reached a point based on that public analysis that they wanted to come up with what they call the New Riverside Criminal Justice Models, something that would make better use of the available dollars in order to protect the community and to redirect the lives involved in the criminal justice system.”

The J-SCI team led by Scott MacDonald, retired chief probation officer for Santa Cruz County, agreed that much progress has been made in 2015.

“The work in Riverside County represents a novel departure in our state’s history of building jails to solve the local pressures of overcrowding,” said MacDonald. “County leaders are working together to implement smart and cost-effective solutions through programs and practices that break the cycle of incarceration while promoting successful change in the community. This is not only good for the taxpayer, it is good for public safety and it is changing lives.”

The Riverside County Probation Department is leading the effort on the county’s behalf. “Five or six years ago, the county realized it had a jail capacity problem that could be solved by implementing evidenced-based practices and pre-sentencing guidelines,” said Chief Probation Officer Mark Hake.

The Probation Department is already seeing results with the creation of a new model for its Day Reporting Centers, involving new ways of handling their probationers through skills training, treatment for substance abuse, vocational assistance, and other supportive services. The Probation department is also implementing aggressive steps to better engage probationers and reduce warrants that result in jail for not maintaining contact with probation. These efforts have resulted in a 25 percent reduction in probation violations and jail since Spring 2014.

Riverside County recently became the third in the state and first in its region to submit its 1115 demonstration waiver plan, which could expand Medicaid eligibility to include coverage for substance abuse programs and free up funding for services for the mentally ill.

J-SCI Policy Consultant Kathy Jett facilitated the initial session to draft the plan with the county's Department of Mental Health Substance Abuse Administration staff and guided them through the process. “They worked closely with probation and the jails so that this new funding stream would assist in the jails,” said Jett.

The plan must be approved at both the state and federal levels, which is expected in the first quarter of 2016.

Two other counties, San Bernardino and El Dorado, have partnered with J-SCI to reform their criminal justice systems in an effort to lower their jail populations.

“In both of those counties, we’ve been able to move faster both in terms of identifying data that will help us make better decisions and in bringing the leaders together to see that opportunity because we’ve incorporated what we’ve learned in San Bernardino and El Dorado,” said Mayer. “So this is a matter of not only helping the local governments learn how to do a better job, but helping the local governments learn from each other about how.”

Reducing jail populations in counties around the state will require a culture change within the counties at every step of the process, everything from intervention before crimes occur, to navigation through the court system, to successful reintroduction to the community after release. Looking forward to 2016, J-SCI will use evidenced-based analysis to assist the counties see where their limited resources are best spent to effect meaningful change within their criminal justice systems.


Nadine Ono

All stories by: Nadine Ono