Many counties fail to learn costly state lessons and still to expand jail capacity

At Oct. 22’s Making Cents: Forging A New California in a Time of Crisis California conference at UC Berkeley, students, educators and advocates highlighted the devastating impacts that California’s out-of-control prison spending has had on our ability to fund K-12 education, higher education and social services across our state. Nearly one month into the state’s massive realignment plan, there was consensus that these out-of-whack priorities and resulting harm to communities would continue to get worse unless we stopped them.

Beginning Oct. 1,  responsibility for low-level prisoners was transferred from state prisons to counties. While politicians and pundits called the move unprecedented, many counties drafted ill-conceived plans that simply shift overcrowding from the state level to the county level. Following 30 years of failed state policy, counties across California are planning to build more expensive jails and leave programs and services as an “unaffordable” afterthought.

Indeed, anyone who has followed the Supreme Court prison overcrowding case or California prison policy can see that current realignment plans heighten the possibility that future overcrowding lawsuits will spread across California’s 58 counties, which will be left broke and broken from prison expenditures that come at the expense of already ailing social programs. In response to the deja vu, the statewide alliance Californians United for a Responsible Budget issued a report card commenting on how well 13 counties’ realignment plans face up.

Using a “pass,” “fail” and “incomplete” grading system, CURB assessed San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Alameda, Santa Clara, Contra Costa, Riverside, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Fresno, Kern, San Bernardino, San Diego and San Mateo counties. Starting from the understanding that realignment would most effectively be implemented by using alternative sentencing and community-based reentry services instead of costly and ineffective jail expansion, CURB issued its grades by looking at counties’ balance between alternatives and more corrections spending.

Only three counties — San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and Santa Clara counties — received passing grades on the report card. These counties have decided not to build more jail space, and have opted instead to use alternatives to incarceration like drug treatment, housing and restorative justice programs, with strong reentry services for those exiting county facilities.

Despite positive steps toward alternatives and reentry services with realignment funding, Alameda County was given an incomplete based on its plans to expand juvenile facilities.

San Francisco County is leading the way in expanding alternatives to incarceration. The county realignment plan includes residential treatment beds, restorative justice classes, substance-abuse services, parenting classes, the Five Keys Charter High School, utilizing the Clean Slate Program, employment counseling and services and transitional housing.

While CURB questions the need for the electronic monitoring and home detention that are also part of the plan, San Francisco is making clear strides toward investing in practices that strengthen communities.

The new Alameda County Chief Probation Officer wants to lead his department in a new direction, one that focuses on prevention. David Muhammad favors the promotion of incentives to good behavior, rehabilitation and alternatives to incarceration. These methods, according to Muhammad, yield the most effective results — fewer people in prison and on probation and parole. However, despite lots of encouraging talk about the need for wrap-around services and support, there is a looming threat that the county will expand its capacity to lock up juveniles by using the currently empty juvenile facility.  Alameda County seems to be moving in the right direction, but needs to commit to not expanding its capacity to incarcerate young adults.

On the opposite side of the spectrum and receiving a failing grade, San Mateo County is one of the few Bay Area counties with crowded jails, which are 125 percent over capacity.  Sheriff Greg Munks is looking to build an even bigger jail that will cost between $145 to $165 million, plus annual operational costs upwards of $30 million. Some of this money could come from California Assembly Bill 900, which is the largest prison construction scheme in human history.

After 30 years of mass incarceration and budget cuts to everything except prisons, isn’t it time the county and the state try something different and start investing those dollars in real long-term solutions?

Realignment should not be used as an excuse to expand policing, probation or jails. We need a statewide construction moratorium on prisons and jails so we can rapidly incentivize parole and sentencing reforms and meaningful alternatives to imprisonment, and start refunding our social safety net. If realignment is to be successful, it must move away from financially and socially disastrous expansion plans, invest in supporting people returning to our counties.  Otherwise, future cuts to education and services are inevitable.

Emily Harris is the statewide coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget.