In California's Kern County this fall, a female convict was sentenced to nine years in the county jail on multiple drug charges. In the past, she would have been sent to state prison — Kern County facilities were only designed to hold inmates for a year at the most. But as part of the state's "realignment"
program to reduce overcrowding in state prisons, county jails and probation officers are now responsible on a long-term basis for offenders convicted of non-violent crimes, like drug or property crimes, who previously would have been sent to state custody.
For Kern County, as for most other California counties, the new experiment with realignment has already brought a change in approach. "Before realignment," says Chief Deputy Sheriff Kevin Zimmermann, "we'd incarcerate offenders, provide minimal education as required by the state, and then send them on their way. The focus is very different now because the focus of realignment is reducing recidivism…we only have so many beds, so it's in our best interest that they don't come back."
Democratic Governor Jerry Brown's plan to sentence non-violent, non-sexual, and non-serious offenders to serve their sentences in county jails rather than in state prison was developed to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court order
declaring overcrowded conditions in the state prisons unconstitutional, and it was put together quickly in the spring and summer of 2011 during the state's budgeting process, without much public debate or study. Each county had to be ready by October with a plan for how to handle its new influx of inmates. Mixed results
After almost four months, the results are mixed. The state announced early in January that it had met
its first prisoner-reduction goal, dropping the state prison population by more than 11,000 inmates, for an overall number of about 133,000. However, because the realignment plan did not change sentencing terms for offenses, large counties in particular are struggling with a large cohort of new offenders placed under their care for long periods of time.
The largest group of offenders that county jails have been taking in since October consists of parole violators, who previously would have been returned to the state penal system. For the most part, their numbers are much larger than initial state predictions. For example, Contra Costa County jails have taken in 348 new inmates who otherwise would have been sent to state prison, and 279 of those have been parole violators. The state had projected a total for Contra Costa of only 86 new inmates in this category.
The parole violators, says Matthew Schuler, commander of the Contra Costa sheriff's custody services bureau, are also coming with mental health needs and gang affiliations that make it hard for the county to handle them. "We have minimum-security facilities," says Schuler," and we're getting maximum-security folks."
County probation officers are also responsible now for released offenders who are out in the community but who would have previously been under state parole supervision. Local police officers are struggling
with the increase in calls that they're getting about these probationers.
When realignment went into effect, there were warnings that switching to less strict local probation would lead to an overall increase in crime. Los Angeles Chief of Police Charlie Beck predicted
that the city might see a 3-percent increase in crime due to realignment. So far, in Los Angeles, there actually has been a decrease in crime since the program began. From October 21, 2011 to January 14, 2012, the city's crime rate was down about 6 percent from the same period during the previous year. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who had initially opposed the realignment plan, recently spoke
in support of it. Money for the future
But the program is still on tenuous footing. Because the governor couldn't drum up enough support in the legislature last year to secure permanent funding for realignment, the program was funded for only one year through a diversion of funds from the state sales tax and vehicle licensing fees. To secure funds for the future — and prevent realignment funds from being diverted to education — Brown has proposed
a ballot initiative, to be voted on this November, that would constitutionally protect county realignment funding and impose a tax increase for education.
"Tying the initiative to these two areas is very smart politics," says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. "Support for these issues largely cuts across demographic and partisan lines."
Brown has convinced the state's associations of counties, sheriffs and chief probation officers, which all were considering similar ballot initiatives to protect realignment funding, to consider supporting his initiative, despite their concerns that it means convincing Californians to vote for a tax increase.
Mariposa County Sheriff Doug Binnewies says that without secure long-term funding, small counties like his will have a hard time managing realignment. His department faced a $1.3 million deficit in 2011-12, and, Binnewies says, "with more inmates in jail, it's a larger cost to the sheriff and the communities, because we have the related costs of medical care, medications, and mental health services." Mariposa County received about $283,000 from the state to cover its realignment costs for 2011-12.
What remains to be seen is whether realignment will make good on its promises to reduce prison costs and curb California's recidivism rate of more than 70 percent. Barry Krisberg, the director of research and policy at University of California's Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy, is concerned that the spending and results at the county level are not being officially tracked. "There's a big assumption that this is going to lead to reduced recidivism rates, but how would we know that? This is the first time we've ever had a program this big with no systemized study mechanism, and right now the only way we would know what is happening from county to county is by sharing stories. We're on the level of stories, not research."
Krisberg does concede that realignment seems to be helping the state meet the Supreme Court-ordered reductions in state prison population. "The sky is not falling," Krisberg says, "but we could do better. I would not recommend to any other state that they do realignment this way."