Two counties, same challenge: Data helping to reshape California jail systems

610 200 Nadine Ono

(Photo Credit: H. Michael Karshis/Flickr)

Although California’s 58 counties represent a wide range of cultural, economic and geographical diversity, they also share a common challenge – to keep the public safe with limited resources while, at the same time, improve outcomes and reduce the huge costs associated with jail and incarceration.

Nineteen California counties are operating under a court-ordered jail population cap and, as a result of the high incarceration rates, are also experiencing budget issues. CA Fwd’s Justice System Change Initiative (J-SCI) is working with four counties to find ways to promote improved public safety outcomes while lowering the reliance on jail using data-driven evidence.

“All counties are impacted with crowding and limited space, but the fact was they didn’t have data to determine who was in jail and why,” said Scott MacDonald, who is leading the J-SCI project on behalf of CA Fwd and is a former Chief Probation Officer for Santa Cruz County.

Last month, the J-SCI team presented preliminary reports to both San Bernardino and Santa Cruz counties. Although the two counties are very different from each other, both are looking for ways to lower their jail populations.

San Bernardino has a population of more than two million people, making it the fifth most populous state in the country. And it's the largest county in the country by area. The preliminary data from J-SCI’s jail study shows that there were more than 82,000 adult bookings in 2015 and nearly 30,000 of those bookings resulted in jail stays of three days or more. More than 40 percent of the bookings that year came through “side doors,” which are warrants, probation or technical violations and holds, not new crimes.

Santa Cruz County’s population is a tenth of the size of San Bernardino County. As the second-smallest county by area, it's known for its coastline and agriculture. In a presentation to the county’s Community Corrections Partnership meeting, the J-SCI team outlined preliminary data from its jail study, which showed that the county has a relatively low percentage of bookings coming through the side door (17 percent). But, the study also showed a high recidivism rate: of the individuals released in 2012, 70 percent returned for new crimes. The county also has a high rate of alcohol and drug-related bookings.

Kevin O’Connell, the principal researcher for the J-SCI initiative added, “When you have data, it prompts conversations with the low-risk jail population.” Those conversations can include the use of diversion programs for individuals who return for substance abuse-related crimes.

The two other counties working with J-SCI are Riverside and El Dorado. In Riverside County, CA Fwd’s J-SCI team is working with an internal executive steering committee composed of department representatives of the county’s criminal justice system. Riverside County is currently implementing the recommendations put forth in the jail study and adopted by their Board of Supervisors. In the year since the jail study was issued, the Probation Department has realized a 25 percent decrease in warrants issued for probation violations.

The next steps in San Bernardino and Santa Cruz are to complete the jail studies and present them to their County Supervisors. But movement is already occurring as San Bernardino is already looking at the initial data to identify opportunities to lower its jail population.

MacDonald summed it up: “Even though we’re working with very diverse counties, they all have one thing in common – they need data to drive system improvement.”


Nadine Ono

All stories by: Nadine Ono