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.