Realigning the criminal justice system in California

On Oct. 1, 2011 the California criminal justice system began a massive reform involving transferring responsibility for managing convicted offenders from state to local agencies. Known as “realignment”, this change was proposed by Gov. Brown and endorsed by a majority of the Democrats in the Legislature. Almost all the Republicans opposed it. The core of the plan is to shift low level offenders from state prisons and parole to local corrections programs.

Within days the naysayers were issuing their jeremiads. The biggest claim was that dangerous prisoners would be released too early, there would be a crime wave, local social services would be overwhelmed and  much more money must be found for more police and jail beds. These fears are largely exaggerated, and there are good reasons to believe that realignment can result in a more efficient justice system, freeing up more public funding for education and other vital community services. Most offenders do not parachute in from outer space — they come from real communities and most will return to those same communities. To become law abiding citizens, most offenders need housing, jobs, mentors, drug treatment and health care services — all of which are best delivered at the local level. Keeping offenders closer to home also encourages stronger family ties that have been proven to reduce recidivism.

This is actually the second time around for this massive reshuffling of state and local responsibilities in the Golden State. In 1965, under Gov. Ronald Reagan, the state enacted the Probation Subsidy Act, which created financial payments to counties that reduced the number of convicts sent to state youth and adult prisons. This program was subject to rigorous research and worked quite well. The Probation Subsidy Act became the model for similar legislation in many states. But law enforcement leaders such as LAPD Police Chief Ed Davis called the program “blood money” and raised fears of a potential crime wave. Also, the state payments to counties did not increase with inflation and so the localities were not happy. Bending to political pressure, then Gov. Jerry Brown killed the program but continued payments to local governments with no requirement to cut prison commitments.

The present realignment approach is a little bit different than Probation Subsidy in the sense that certain low risk offenders can no longer be sent to state prisons or placed on state parole.

The counties will get several billion dollars that they can spend with virtually no oversight or accountability. One wry observer called this approach “put money on the stump and run.” This laissez faire approach means that 58 counties will produce many differing versions of the reform — we will see the emergence of justice by geography. Achieving the promise of realignment will depend heavily on the creativity and willingness of local officials to try different approaches.

We may see some counties implement evidence-based rehabilitation models and others that will just expand their local incarceration capacity. Some locales such as Los Angeles are hiring large numbers of additional jailers and probation officers.

For the university community, the time is now to attend and weigh-in at those local planning sessions, where the money will be carved up. We also need to worry about the potential widening of the net — even more minor level offenders being incarcerated or supervised at the local level. Public officials and criminal justice officials have consistently opposed rational alternatives to the costly War on Drugs — even gutting funding for community-based diversion and treatment programs approved by the voters in Proposition 36. They can be expected to assert the need for additional funding for the criminal justice system as opposed to community-based service agencies or prevention programs. Most important, Gov. Brown has promised to lead a ballot campaign to create a constitutional requirement that the monies for local law enforcement under realignment can never by cut! If passed, such an amendment would further weaken education, child care and services for the poor.

Barry Krisberg is the research and policy director of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the UC Berkeley School of Law. He also testified before the U.S. Supreme Court on the California prison system.

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  • I want to say, I could not have said it better myself but I did, professor.
    The answer is a new clemency system designed to do what the professor has suggested.

    We have become so obsessed with “The rule of law” that we
    are squeezing the life out of justice.

    I would love to show you my evidence, which is also on the site that offers the solution.

  • Richmck

    California has an average prison incarceration rate compared to other large states. It would be quite a bit lower if about 48,000 prison beds were occupied by county jail inmates. Jail shortages caused the shift of over a third of the county jail population to prison between 1985 and 1995, causing minor prison overcrowding. Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court decision, the jail inmates are being returned to county custody. Realignment will reduce prison costs by almost $900 million annually. About $750 million will be saved because of lower jail operating costs and $125 million from a reduced parole violation rate. The savings could have started any time during the past 15 years if the politicians had been willing to take advantage of the money-saving opportunity. Actually, the savings could be doubled by just restricting prison to 80,000 Level III & IV inmates and transferring an additional 48,000 Level I & II inmates to county operated contract facilities. California would still have 10,000 more prison inmates than New York, a comparable size state. It should’t require a Supreme Court order to save tax payers money but it does.

  • Anonymous

    CDCR Secretary Cate wants us to believe that the Supreme Court prisoner release order is the reasonbehind realignment. Unfortunately, realignment addresses the SupremeCourt’s concerns regarding overcrowding and inhumane conditions at our stateprisons by shifting the problem to the county level. This is evident given that32 of our county jails are currently under State or Court ordered populationcaps, and LA County, our nations largest system, has been under the Courtordered watch of the ACLU for decades for the same problems. Only a couple ofweeks after the implementation of AB 109, two counties, including Fresno, havealready declared their jails full due to realignment. Riverside County received27 inmates in the first 2 weeks of realignment, with 1 receiving a sentence of14 years, another 9 years, another 6 years, while 3 more received 5 years each- all to be served in local custody. LA County has received over 700 new inmatessince October 1st due to realignment, and expects to be full by Christmas.Jails are not prisons and were not designed to hold hardened criminals for longperiods of time – this will become evident very quickly. I understand there islimited funding available thru AB 900 for building some new jail space, but itis not enough and take will many years to complete – definitely not by2013/2014 when 40,000 inmates will have been transferred to the counties. Thatleaves us with two possible scenarios: overcrowded, inhumane county jails –exposing AB 109 as a shell game designed to dump the states problems on ourcounties – or we must stop prosecuting people for “nonviolent/serious” crimes like burglary, car theft, involuntarymanslaughter, drug sales, etc. With the jails full, and the threat of consequencesremoved, what do you think will happen to our crime rate? What offender isgoing to comply with probation or parole when the jails are full? Withincarceration not an option, what are the Courts or the Board of PrisonHearings going to do when the offender removes his GPS? More GPS? These are not the rehab thirsty individuals that Mr. Krisberg would have you believe.  The average state inmate has 7 felony convictions on their record and have failed numerous opportunities at rehabilitation provided but the Courts, Probation and Parole.  If Probation has the magic rehab wand, why didn’t they use it the first few times they had the opportunity before finally giving up and recommending the Court impose the offender’s suspended prison sentence?  People like Kinsberg believe that individuals fail probation, but parole fails the individual – which is utter nonsense. Sentencing and parole reform, including programs like the early release of women w/children, would be a much better alternative to solving our overcrowding issuesw/o endangering our communities. There is no need to dismantle parole,especially when it requires a voter approved tax increase and a constitutionalamendment to fund the transfer to the counties, which are in no way prepared orable to handle the onslaught coming their way.  Better start “smoothing the bumps” NOW Mr Cate – your current legislation is already proving to be fatally flawed and a danger to public safety.