California Realignment Picture Comes into Focus

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California became the primary guinea pig in the prison industry after federal judges ordered the cash-strapped state to reduce its prison population within two years, starting in May of 2011, due to unsafe levels of prison overcrowding, a ruling later upheld by the Supreme Court. In the post-financial-collapse world where many states are considering cuts to law enforcement and correctional facilities that would have seemed unthinkable in more stable financial times, all eyes are on the Golden State, and you can bet most politicians will be referencing statistics and stories from California for the next few years while making their arguments for one policy or another.

State politicians responded to the judges’ order with realignment, which basically consists of sending “less serious offenders,” those sentenced to less than three years, back to the county level, along with some of the funding the state was using to house them in prison. This policy only applies to offenders convicted after the law was changed. Given that the state couldn’t afford to house all its prisoners with a level of supervision and safety that the feds found acceptable, most observers have concluded that this move will essentially force law enforcement to change priorities on whom they arrest and how they sentence or encourage them to send more offenders to probation or electronic monitoring programs instead of jail.

The new law also places these prisoners on probation when released, instead of parole. The main distinction is that small parole violations used to send prisoners immediately back to prison with no new trial, which will no longer be the case. New crimes committed by recently released prisoners will now have to be tried as separate cases.

A recent report from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice explains the state’s prison population was cut by 39 percent in the first nine months after realignment. This means the state is two-thirds of the way to achieving its mandated goal of reducing the prison population by 40,000 inmates by 2013.

The state is clearly making progress in its effort to reduce prison overcrowding, but many people believe this isn’t necessarily a good thing. After the Supreme Court’s ruling, many local law enforcement officials in the state characterized it as a case of accepting a leap in crime rates and a different standard of law enforcement in exchange for budget balancing and keeping the feds off the state’s back.

There is little argument about the fact that crime rates go up when more people are released from prison, but what about recidivism rates? You would expect that if the criminal justice system randomly releases certain prisoners because of overcrowding, the rate of successful rehabilitation of prisoners would go down, as the prisoners are serving more of their time in jails or probation programs that weren’t designed to hold them for long periods of times.

Interestingly, the first report by the Chief Probation Officers of California, released in late July, indicates that less than four percent of felons failed to report to their probation officers in the first six-month period post-realignment. Comparatively, 14 percent of inmates were listed as fugitives after not reporting to their parole officers under the old system. Marin County Chief Probation Officer Michael Daly told the Associated Press he suspected this change was due to the fact that recently released felons could now earn their release from probationary supervision after only six months of avoiding probation violations, compared to a year-long wait before. Daly argued that this provides a motivation for ex-felons to behave. “We’ve hung out a pretty good carrot there,” Daly commented.

There has also been a change in the proactive work done by probation departments. Many departments now contact prisoners nearing release in an effort to prepare them for life outside of jail. Some departments even help inmates secure jobs and/or housing before they exit custody.

One interesting side effect of realignment has been the way different judges and district attorneys have responded to it. Law enforcement has usually been thought of as a moral issue rather than a fiscal issue in our country, but now these officials find themselves in a place where the financial well-being of their county might be directly related to how much they throw the book at criminals. Some officials say they don’t think about their county’s bottom line when making decisions about how to charge or sentence offenders, but others say they don’t have a choice. In cash-strapped areas with outdated and overcrowded jails, giving a jail bed to a drug addict may mean having to release a habitual domestic violence offender. Results from the probation study found that judges and prosecutors have increased their usage of sentences where certain offenders begin serving their time in jail, but later move to other programs like house arrest.

Although most counties haven’t released their own statistics on things like recidivism rates, San Bernardino County was quick to point out its success in transitioning to the new model. Chris Condon, spokesman for the county’s probation department, said the state recidivism rate was 67.5, while San Bernardino’s was 82.55 percent before realignment. He happily explained the rate was now 22 percent in his county. Interestingly enough, the probation representative said he didn’t think judges or prosecutors in his county were changing their sentencing practices and that most of the improvements were made on the back end, by changing how prisoners were treated when they were released. Condon attributed this success to a combination of having good electronic monitoring systems and other probation tools already in place, along with the department hiring 107 additional employees in the time since realignment was announced. Condon said his county used the funding from the state to add these employees, make sure every substation had a probation officer assigned to it, and increase the size of domestic violence, gang, and sexual violence units. Condon said collaborative agreements with health and human services departments were expanded, in addition to law enforcement. Having survived this particular sea-change, Condon said the next concern on the horizon is that the state might try to move more juvenile corrections responsibilities to the county level. He also commented that crime rates went up overall since realignment began, but there was no direct correlation to the recent changes. Condon said the rise in crime could just as easily be attributed to the bad economy.

Meanwhile, the state recently formed a new agency, the Board of State and Community Corrections, to monitor the effects of realignment. The Los Angeles Times predicted that by mid-August one outcome the board might find is that the current rate of prison population reduction won’t get the state to its court-ordered benchmarks on time. Last October, the prison population was falling by 4,000 inmates a month, a rate that has fallen dramatically to less than 1,000 per month. Needless to say, the state is currently on target to miss its prison population benchmark, despite all the changes made so far.

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