Uncertainty Looms As California Corrections ‘Realignment? Plan Begins Saturday

Tracey Kaplan of the San Jose Mercury News reports:

To trim its bulging prison population and cut costs, California is about to gamble on a strategy no other state has tried – unload the responsibility for punishing and rehabilitating thousands of nonviolent felons from the state prison system to local communities.

The state’s new massive “realignment” plan – which begins Saturday – amounts to a dramatic retreat from California’s costly, tough-on-crime, lock-’em-up approach. No matter how slowly the new strategy unfolds, it will ultimately put more low-level offenders on the streets sooner than they would be under the current rules, either because they are enrolled in rehabilitation programs outside the jail walls, or are serving shorter periods in jail or on post-release supervision.

“It’s the biggest change in the criminal justice system in 35 years,” since the state switched to imposing fixed-term sentences on most crimes, said Judge Phil Pennypacker, who presides over the criminal division of Santa Clara County Superior Court.

For those unfamiliar, this abrupt policy change is coming on the heels of the Supreme Court’s recent Brown v. Plata decision, which found California’s in-state publicly operated prisons are providing unconstitutional medical and mental health care to inmates. Notably, California’s thousands of inmates incarcerated in privately operated prisons were not included in this ruling. (For more on Brown v. Plata, see my previous post here.)

Many of the concerns over realignment first arose when enabling legislation, specifically California Assembly Bill 11-109, was signed in April. AB 109 allows for a felony offender to be punished “by imprisonment in a county jail for more than one year.” (For more on AB 109 see my previous post here). Kaplan continues:

With the startup of realignment just days away, judges, sheriffs, lawyers and probation chiefs throughout California have been frantically meeting to figure out the complex rules. Before long, nearly everyone in county jail will be eligible to get out after serving half their sentence if they behave; currently, jail inmates have to serve two-thirds. Parolees who comply with the conditions of their release also can earn their freedom sooner – in six months, rather than a year.

And sheriffs in some of the 32 counties with court-imposed caps on jail populations or overcrowded jails are likely to release more inmates early.

Though that’s not a problem for most Bay Area counties, the lack of jail beds is particularly acute in parts of the Central Valley and Southern California, especially Los Angeles County, which collectively released more than 68,000 sentenced inmates in 2009 before they were due to be freed.

Next she highlights fears that early inmate release programs may lead to an increase in property crimes, reversing California’s recent plunge in crime rate down to 1960’s levels. At the same time, advocates for realignment argue a new approach may lead to lower recidivism as communities provide alternatives to incarceration. While the outcome is difficult to predict, funding remains uncertain too. Kaplan writes:

Counties were given state funds totaling $400 million this fiscal year to spend on whatever mix of incarceration, supervision and programs they choose. State finance analysts say realignment will save about $53 million in prison costs this fiscal year, $125 million next year and $338 million the year after, even as the counties’ allocation rises to about $1 billion in 2013-14.

But even if counties had the capacity or the staff to supervise more inmates, the state is not giving them enough money to simply lock them up. Incarceration is an expensive option; in the Bay Area, jail costs about $77 a day, compared with up to $49 for electronic monitoring. Drug treatment costs a little more than jail – $88 a day for a 90-day residential program – but if it works, it saves taxpayers money in the long run.

Many counties complain the funding falls far short of covering the cost of alternative programs – and they worry the state could cut it even more as the budget crisis worsens. The governor’s first attempt to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot guaranteeing future funding failed, but he vowed last week to get such an amendment on the November 2012 ballot – even if he has to launch an initiative campaign himself.

Finally, she concludes with revealing data from a recent Los Angeles Times and University of Southern California poll that found:

  • “80 percent of voters support realignment, though it’s unclear whether they will agree to tax themselves to fund it or to designate a portion of the state’s general fund to cover the cost.
  • Nearly 70 percent even approve the early release of some low-level nonviolent offenders.
  • In a major shift, voters are fed up with prison spending… [Which] produces the second-highest recidivism rate in the country: 67.5 percent.”

The full article is a must-read and is available online here.

In a recent commentary entitled “Brown v. Plata Ruling Highlights Need for Reform (Not Tax Increases)” Adam Summers and I outline three recommendations for California policymakers:

  1. Pursue criminal sentencing reform.
  2. Make recidivism reduction a priority.
  3. Expand use of privately operated facilities.

The full commentary is available online here. For more, read Reason Foundation’s 2010 study entitled Public Private Partnerships for Corrections in California: Bridging the Gap Between Crisis and Reform.