California's massive overhaul of its penal system has done more than just transfer responsibility for low-level criminal offenders to counties -- it's also spurred a shift away from locking up people in prison or jail, according to a new Stanford study.

As the state's prison population shrank under a federal court order to reduce overcrowding, local jails did not absorb the reduction, the study found. Between 2010 and 2012, the state's prison population fell by nearly 30,000 while the number of jail inmates increased only by about 8,200 people.

As a result, the incarceration rate per 100,000 adult Californians dropped by almost 12 percent. But the study predicts the pendulum will start swinging back toward locking people up again, primarily as the many counties with limited jail capacity expand or build new lockups funded by state bonds.

By 2017, the study found, the net decrease in California's incarceration rate since 2010 will be only 5 percent.

The new, more lenient rules that came with realigning the criminal justice system alone won't be enough to sustain the lower incarceration rate. They include enhanced jail credits that allow offenders to potentially serve only half their sentence and shorter maximum jail terms for offenders who violate conditions of their supervision.

"The very provisions of realignment have accelerated decarceration in California in the immediate term," said study co-author Deborah Mukamal. "Over time, though, those effects will lessen ... unless the state engages in significant reform of its sentencing laws and invests much more substantially in alternatives to incarceration."


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Effects on crime

The report, dubbed "Reallocation of Responsibility: Changes to the Correctional Control System in California Post-Realignment," does not address the debate over whether putting more offenders on the streets will drive up crime rates even as it saves taxpayers money.

Violent crime in California rose 2.8 percent between 2011 and 2012; property crime, 6.9 percent. But during the same period, many budget-stressed cities also cut their police forces, making it difficult to assess blame.

However, a recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California found a direct correlation between auto theft increases and the rollout of realignment in October 2011. Auto thefts started to rise that month, and had increased by more than 20 percent in each of the last few months of 2012 compared to the same months in 2010.

Reformers continue to be concerned that what they describe as the prison-industrial complex is being replaced by a jail-industrial complex.

"Our concern is, if you build it (jails), they will fill it," said Allen Hopper, police practices director of the ACLU of Northern California. "There are still far too many people behind bars who are there because they simply can't afford bail, not because a judge said they were too dangerous."

Shift in control

The Stanford study also quantified the dramatic shift in correctional control from the state to the counties. The report was co-authored by Mukamal, Lisa T. Quan and Sara Abarbanel at the university's Criminal Justice Center.

In 2010, jail inmates and probationers overseen by counties accounted for 56 percent of all adults under correctional control in California. In 2012, they accounted for 71 percent. The state is still responsible for prisoners and parolees, but they now make up slightly less than a third of the correctional population.

The study also found that California now ranks below the national average in the proportion of adults it imprisons and places on parole. But its probation population, which is under county control, has exploded, from 311,692 people in 2010 to 416,414 people in 2012.

"One chief said that at first it was like drinking out of a fire hose," said Mike Daly, Marin County's chief and president of the Chief Probation Officers of California.

The challenges continue, said Mack Jenkins, San Diego County's chief and past president of the association.

"We're two years in," he said, "and we still need additional officers and support for treatment programs to achieve the right balance between enforcement and rehabilitation."

Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482. Follow her at Twitter.com/tkaplanreport.