California Prisons: Does Realignment Mean Reform?


In March, the Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its state prison population by 33,000 inmates by 2014. This is a herculean task. Even if the state accomplishes that reduction, California prisons will still be bursting at the seams with 40% more inmates than they were designed to house.

This dismal prediction is the unhappy background to the California Correctional Association’s plan for adult prison realignment. This plan, a product of Governor Jerry Brown’s June budget agreement, has the potential to accomplish changes in criminal justice policy that have been politically impossible since the 1990s. The legacy of California’s situation hinges on decisions made during the economically flush 1990s. At the time, “tough on crime” politicians gave residents of California laws like Three Strikes, which mandates life sentences for individuals on their third felony. The great recession of the last few years, ironically, may incite the state’s 58 counties to implement more effective, more humane and cheaper criminal justice practices.

The Supreme Court’s order challenges California’s behemoth state prison system to make itself fiscally sustainable; to treat incarcerated people with proper health care and dignity; and to rethink “normal” levels of sentencing in correctional systems. Will California’s solution, set out in Assembly Bills 109 and 118, do that? Criminologist Barry Krisberg answers this question bluntly: No one knows.

Realignment would be a quick and dirty fix if prisons were to open their gates and allow 33,000 inmates to flood the streets, a narrative that realignment’s critics try to craft. (State Legislator George Runner has instructed his constituents: “It’s time to get a dog and a gun.”) But AB 109 neither transfers nor orders early release of any inmates.

Instead, inmates will complete their sentences in state prisons and trickle into county post-release community supervision services. After October 1st, all new offenders who are non-violent, non-serious, and non-sex offenders must go to county jails.

Without a direct transfer of prisoners or early release, prison de-crowding will happen slowly, and it will depend on the rate of those exiting and entering state prisons. It is unclear if, by 2014, the balance of prisoners exiting and entering the system will reduce the population by 33,000. Lengths of sentences will play massive parts in determining eventual reductions in prison population. All of these factors make it difficult to crunch the numbers about when, and how, California will comply with the Supreme Court order.

What is a county to do? The burden shifted to California’s 58 counties is enormous. For decades, it has been unambiguously clear that state prison systems need to shrink their populations, but not at all clear who should shoulder the burden. Counties have fought tooth and nail to evade the responsibility; there is a reason it took a Supreme Court ruling to send California politicians scrambling for a solution. Yet it is true that most counties are strapped for cash and 24 of the 58 counties lack the capacity to house the individuals they would otherwise send to state prisons in a single month.

The question has become: should those individuals be going to jail or prison at all? The “non-non-non” population’s offenses, as the Center on Criminal and Juvenile Justice has shown (CJCJ), usually revolve around drug possession, minor drug sales and addictions that contribute to property offenses. This population usually fares better under community supervision than it does entering confinement, which has a criminogenic effect—it is no accident that the state recidivism rate hovers at an astronomical 70%. Rhetoric used for political fear-mongering—evoking images of über-criminals who will walk the streets as soon as fewer individuals are made to serve time—is a costly hoax.

In fact, prison de-crowding and especially cost saving will rely largely on counties. Their behavior will depend on financial incentives, but so far, the state has done a poor job rewarding counties for new, cost-saving alternatives to incarceration. Some counties, including Santa Cruz and San Francisco, have been establishing alternatives since before realignment began.

Ironically, the state allocates funding for realignment using the number of new individuals becoming a county’s responsibility. Therefore, counties that have already assumed that burden (thus saving the state money already) receive less money than state-dependent counties, which have historically referred high numbers of offenders to state prisons. Small counties tend to be state-dependent because they lack resources. However even San Bernadino county, with roughly 1 million people, incarcerates 14 times as often as its counterpart, Contra Costa County. As Dan Macallair at CJCJ has written, justice in California is really justice by geography.

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2 thoughts on “California Prisons: Does Realignment Mean Reform?

  1. I spent 10 years in a myraid of California Prisons, mostly level 4, for drug charges and violence in prison. I turned myself into an author of 5 books on the subject and point to the fact we need more community involvement to solve the problem. I am trying to tie churchs, community drug programs and A.A programs tighter together to help ex-prisoners acclimate back to the community, without feeling as desperate, so they don’t fall back to old behavior and give up. Maybe this re-alignment will show the need for this.

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