Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era
Don't trade safety for prison savings County officials -- commissioners, judges, the district attorney and others -- have been talking about ways to reduce overcrowding in the county jail for years.
Some ideas have been put into practice. They seem to be having an effect.
At the end of January 2012, the prison was packed with more than 1,200 inmates. As of early Tuesday afternoon -- nearly a year later -- there are 1,062.
That does not mean that number won't rise again. The number of prisoners may increase by this morning,. The population is constantly changing.
But authorities believe they have begun to stabilize that population by treating some non-violent prisoners differently. They hope to keep the number of prisoners at 1,050 or fewer -- and save nearly $2 million a year -- by expanding those initiatives.
Judge Joseph Madenspacher outlined ongoing and new plans to reduce the jail population to the county's Prison Board last week.
They include sending more prisoners home on house arrest. Also, not incarcerating some prisoners solely because they can't make bail or have committed a technical parole violation (such as missing an appointment with a parole officer).
Madenspacher said the system also plans to move more inmates into drug, mental health and veterans courts, rather than to prison.
And the court wants to give more inmates a chance to reduce their sentences by attending anger management classes, drug and alcohol treatment, and other self-help classes.
The goal is not only to alleveviate overcrowding at the jail on East King Street, but to reduce the cost of housing excess prisoners in the jails of other counties.
There will be no wholesale releases of prisoners, Madenspacher pledged. Judges, prosecutors and parole officers will choose with care who gets to leave prison.
"The No. 1 priority still will be the safety of the public,'' he said.
In fact, any plans to stabilize the prison population are positive only if the public safety is not endangered.
If the wrong people receive special treatment and boomerang back into the crime population, $2 million in savings will be a poor return.
California is realizing what it means to trade dollars for security.
Since October 2011, some 300,000 state prisoners have been released and placed on probation. The primary goal was to reduce prison overcrowding and save money.
Since then, crime has risen in many California cities. Many authorities blame that change on the planned reduction of prisoners.
Lancaster County's prison has been chronically overcrowded for a long time. It is less so now. If the authorities' plans work, the population may well remain near an "ideal'' number of 1,050.
But the county cannot play a numbers game with public safety. It's the one crucial area of the budget where saving money could be dangerously counterproductive.
Any plans to stabilize the prison population are positive only if the public safety is not endangered.