How California Counties Are Using Prison Realignment Funding

California is projected to distribute $4.4 billion to California counties by 2016-2017 in order to facilitate the significant overhaul of the California corrections system known as “Realignment.” Passed in 2011 as AB 109, Realignment seeks to shift increasing responsibility for incarcerating and managing offenders from the state level to the county level. Notable reforms under AB 109 include an end to automatic returns to state prisons for parole violations and redirecting non-violent, non-sexual, non-serious offenders to serve their sentences in county jails instead of stare prisons. As part of the goal of shifting increasing responsibility on the county level, AB 109 also provides for significant funding streams to counties to adjust to the increased responsibilities, with significant leeway provided to county governments in how to allocate the funds.

Last week, the Stanford Criminal Justice Center released a report entitled “Follow the Money: How California Counties Are Spending Their Public Safety Realignment Funds,” that identifies trends in how California counties are allocating funds pursuant to AB 109. In particular, the report breaks down characteristics of counties that allocate more funding to either Sheriff and Law Enforcement spending categories or Programs and Services categories.

The report found that counties are allocating more funding towards law enforcement agencies when:

  • The imprisonment rate for drug felonies is higher.
  • The serious (Part I) crime rate is higher.
  • The county has a relatively high number of full-time law enforcement personnel.
  • The county has recently gained a relatively large number of law enforcement personnel.
  • The concentration of high-risk parolees is lower.
  • The drug offense arrest rate is lower.

Among the countries included in this category are Kern, Los Angeles, Tehama, Tulare, Yolo, and Yuba counties. Grouped as “Enforcement Cluster 4” in the report, these counties were identified as having “high arrest rates for drug crimes and a high number of law enforcement personnel—a number that has grown in recent years.” Further, these counties “have a relative preference for imprisonment on drug crimes and face above average serious crime rates.”

Among the interesting trends identified in the report is that “many of the most famously liberal/progressive counties in the state rate above average on drug arrests, including Los Angeles, Alameda, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco Counties.” It should be noted that while California has reduced penalties for marijuana and methamphetamine possession, Governor Jerry Brown recently vetoed legislation that would have allowed local prosecutors greater discretion in charging drug offenders with either misdemeanors or felonies. As a consequence, a potential shifting of law enforcement priorities was squandered in order to resume the dubious criminalization of forbidden substances.

Meanwhile, the report identified general characteristics of counties that have directed more funds towards programs and services spending categories when:

  • The sheriff has received more electoral support.
  • The Black unemployment rate is higher.
  • District attorney expenditures are lower.
  • Probation expenditures are lower.

To the first point, the report speculates that “key law enforcement officials in these counties feel liberated by public support to pursue programs that meet the intended goals of Realignment, instead of feeling the need to curry favor with the public by shoring up enforcement apparatuses.” With regards to black unemployment, the report suggests that counties shift more funding towards reentry programs in order to address the reality that black Americans are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system.

Among the counties that seem more inclined to pursue “treatment as a solution to crime problems” are Alameda, Humboldt, Lake, Lassen, Shasta, and Sonoma counties.

Pages 18 and 19 of the report are useful maps breaking down the relative allocation of funding to either law enforcement expenditures or programs/services.

With billions of dollars on the line and countless lives at stake, how these different strategies to dealing with realignment play out warrants careful attention.