As overcrowding and budget shortfalls plague U.S. jails, the response increasingly has been to go softer on sentencing.

But that trend is raising concerns that the jails are only feeding the problem, releasing criminals who in turn go on to commit more crimes.

Washington state's King County is the latest to consider a softer approach to crime. County Executive Dow Constantine recently announced that if judges, prosecutors and public defenders can't figure out a way to speed up the time it takes criminal defendants to go from arrest to trial, he'll institute a "book-and-release" policy.

"That would be an absolute last resort," Constantine said. "But the fact is we have a capacity challenge and a financial challenge."

Washington state leads the nation in property crime, yet car thieves, package pilferers and home burglars rarely do any real time. Book-and-release would keep even more of the suspected criminals on the streets. People arrested for most property and drug crimes would simply be booked, given a court date to appear for arraignment and released. Even after their initial appearance, few would see a jail cell until they're convicted, if at all.

This follows a trend across the country. According to Pew Research, between 2009 and 2013, 27 states eased drug laws, though state prison populations have continued to rise.

Under court order to ease overcrowding, California released tens of thousands of inmates in 2011. Since then, crime has gone up -- and freed low-level offenders are often getting caught committing more serious crimes.

"Now they're out hurting people," said Mike Rushford, of the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. "We let them out when they steal a car, and now they steal a car and they kill the driver."

Rushford said 24,000 more cars were stolen in California in the first year after the mass prison release. Now, the Golden State is going to incarcerate even fewer criminals. In November, voters passed Proposition 47, which turned many felonies into misdemeanors. It went into effect immediately.

Since then, Los Angeles County has likewise seen a spike in crime. Compared with the same three-month period a year ago, auto theft is up 20 percent, felonies are up 16 percent, misdemeanors are up 27 percent and homicides are up 18 percent.

That kind of response has sheriffs in Washington state worried.

"If I'm taking somebody and I'm not holding them accountable, what are they going to do?" said Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza, who also has a four-year old, $48 million jail that has yet to house a single inmate, because there's not enough money in the county budget to run it. 

"They're going to re-offend, and that is the concern I have. If we're not holding these people accountable, they must think it's okay to go re-offend again."

Dan Springer joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in August 2001 as a Seattle-based correspondent.