Last October California embarked on an unprecedented overhaul of its criminal justice system, known as realignment. Under court order to ease prison overcrowding, the state shifted responsibility for thousands of felons to local counties. The state also gave money to the counties and broad discretion over how to spend it handling the felons. Inmates convicted of low-level offenses are now serving time in county jails or on probation. Since then, the state inmate population has dropped dramatically. But there's a growing disparity over how realignment is impacting counties, especially county jails.
At the Fresno County jail, dozens of inmates are locked in giant steel cages on the roof. It's the only place where inmates get outside during their weekly hour of recreation. In the scorching heat, many are stripped to the waist as they work out and shoot hoops.
Their glistening tattoos suggest hard lives of gangs, violence and prison.
Before last year, most of these inmates would have been in state lockups. Now, under realignment, they're serving time here, in a jail that was built to hold prisoners for only short-term stays. Talking from inside the steel mesh wires, young Latino inmates say they're not happy being here.
"There are no programs here," one heavily-tattooed young man says. "No school, no education. There's no jobs. This yard is once a week, every Monday, for one hour. That's it. No sunlight, no fresh air."
When asked where would they prefer to be, prison or jail, one inmate answers, "I'd rather go to prison myself." All the other inmates agree. They'd rather be in state prison.
The theory behind realignment is that putting non-violent offenders closer to home increases their chances of rehabilitation. But for now at least, Fresno's jail is stretched to capacity. Margaret Mims, the Fresno County sheriff, says they weren't prepared for the influx.
"It was disappointing that we were hit so hard so fast with many more inmates, says Mims. "And we're all scrambling to figure out how we're going to deal with it."
Fresno is spending nearly half its realignment money on new jail beds to deal with the influx, and the county says it's had to release some felons because the jail is under a court-ordered population cap.
Fresno is not alone. Jail populations have shot up in six out of California's 10 biggest counties. And while the state says it is only sending low-level felons to the counties, Mims says there's a catch.
"The problem is that only describes their current charge. It doesn't describe their criminal history." In fact more than half the county's new inmates are considered medium or high risk.
The Fresno County jail is facing another unexpected problem: housing inmates who are serving long sentences.
Amy Granados is serving five years in Fresno on drugs charges. Talking from a small, darkened cell, she says she's been in and out of state prison so many times that it's become a way of life.
"I wasn't afraid to go back," says Granados. "I wasn't afraid to keep committing crimes because it's easy there, compared to here. I'm not going to want to come back here."
Granados's case isn't unique. Another inmate is serving 18 years at the Fresno County jail, and there are similar cases in Los Angeles and other counties. That's not the way realignment was intended to work, according to Donald Specter, director of the Prison Law Office. It was Specter's organization that successfully sued California over poor conditions in state prisons, forcing Governor Jerry Brown to order the realignment plan. Now his group is suing Fresno and is considering suits against Riverside and other counties over some of the same problems they found in state prisons.
"You have idleness," says Specter, "You have crowding issues. You have lack of healthcare. You have lack of programs. You have lack of rehabilitative services, you have lack of post-sentence programs."
Still, not all counties are struggling. At the other end of the spectrum is San Francisco, whose jail and post-release system are considered a model.
San Francisco County offers inmates a wide variety of rehabilitation programs and services, from anger management to yoga, and follows inmates after release. Prior to realignment San Francisco was already sending a low number of felons to state prison. That's one reason its jail population remains at an historic low, according to police Captain Kevin Paulson.
"Realignment has not caused a crisis in San Francisco County," he says.
Unlike some other counties such as Fresno, San Francisco is investing most of its realignment money in rehabilitation.
Randy Nichols is serving time for drug charges. He says he spent 27 years in and out of prison, only to end up at the San Francisco county jail because of realignment.
"When I go to state prison I don't know if I'm getting out…alive," says Nichols. "When I come here I'm able to work on myself, be myself."
Dan Macallair, a prison reform advocate who directs the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, says it's not surprising that realignment is playing out unevenly around California's 58 counties, given the wide disparities in local justice systems that have existed for years. Still, he says statewide data indicates the overall jail population is only up a few percentage points.
"We have fewer people in prison now, we have fewer police, but the crime rates are down," Macallair says. "Property crime is down, violent crime is down. So realignment seems to be doing a good thing."
Mims isn't so sure. While Fresno is now putting a little more money into rehabilitation programs, its main focus is still in managing the growing influx of felons, in jail and on the streets.
"We have helped solve the state's overcrowding problem," says Mims. "However it is not solving our own problems here yet."
Mims says for realignment to work on all of California's counties, it will require major adjustments throughout the criminal justice system, from the cops and district attorneys to the sentencing judges and probation