Don’t call it a prison release – or a panacea

California’s prison realignment is a confusing process, but state officials want to make one thing clear. While the prison population is being reduced starting next week, California isn’t actually releasing any prisoners early.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s order compelling California to reduce its prison population by 34,000 people. Healthcare in the state prisons was so poor it amounted to a violation of the prisoner’s constitutional rights, the court said.

Rather than release prisoners, the state passed AB 109 in response to the court mandate. The legislation is commonly referred to as realignment.

“The real answer is not to let violent criminals out of prison, but to realign the process,” explained Gov. Brown in a speech last week.

Realignment shifts the responsibility for non-violent, non-serious and non-sexual offenders to the county. Counties will respond to these offenses with a combination of sanctions like jail time, home monitoring and probation as well as treatment options.

The realignment process begins Oct 1. In preparation for the change, county probation chiefs throughout the state have led taskforces that developed realignment plans with input from the offices of the district attorney, the public defender, the Sheriff and health and human services.

Historically, low-level offenders have been handled on the county level, Brown noted in his speech, which took place at a conference on AB 109 in Sacramento. The ratio of people in jail and prison was equal until the 1980s; today the number of people in prison is twice the number of people in jail, Brown said.

The shift of low-level offenders from county to state control was in part a consequence of the war on drugs, which increased penalties for drug offenses, said criminologist Meda Chesney-Lind.

The state has understood the need to reduce the prison population for some time, Brown said. Ten commissions have produced reports on the best way to achieve that reduction, expertise reflected in the realignment legislation, he said.

Leaving low-level offenders in the county’s care does make sense, said Barry Krisberg, Director of Research and Policy at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California, Berkeley law school.

The county provides services like addiction counseling and housing assistance, and jail time instead of prison time means inmates can be closer to their families – that’s the kind of help people need for successful reentry, Krisberg said.

But sending people to county corrections is not a panacea for crime or California’s crime policy problems, Krisberg cautions. Pitfalls of realignment are significant and include a lack of oversight and evaluation and a lack of good data on the methods being used to manage offenders in the county.

No state agency is overseeing realignment plans and money, Krisberg said.

“In the old days, we used to call this ‘put the money on the stump and run,’” Krisberg said.

Prison realignment legislation encourages counties to approach corrections differently than the state by avoiding substituting jails for prisons and relying on best practices in alternatives to incarceration instead. Some of the practices encouraged by realignment include flash incarceration, home detention and day reporting.

Generally, counties will differ in their plans, especially in how they use treatment and sanctions other than jail as a response to low-level offenders, said Dean Misczynski, adjunct policy fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.

“There are 58 counties,” Misczynski said. “We are going to see 58 ways of implementing this plan.”

The data supporting best practices is also weak, Misczynski and Krisberg said. Evaluating the counties’ approaches is essential to understanding the effects of prison realignment, both experts said. However, there is no funding in the legislation specifically earmarked for data collection, Misczynski said.

Without hard information, critics of reform will use any upward tick in crime to suggest that the legislation doesn’t work, and proponents will use a downward crime trend to show that it does work, Misczynski said.

“If you don’t collect the data, there is nothing but political rhetoric,” Misczynski said.

Political rhetoric – especially tough-on-crime rhetoric – is what got California into its corrections problem in the first place, Krisberg said.

“In our zeal to punish offenders, we’ve punished ourselves,” he said, citing the significant chunk of the state budget that goes to prisons.

Others note,  however, that the most recent offense for which a person is incarcerated does not tell the entire story about their character. Someone who qualifies for county supervision because they are considered a “low level” offender might still have prior convictions that are more serious.

Despite such criticisms, experts agree with Brown on one essential point: it is better that truly low-level offenders will no longer be sent to prison.

Though it is doubtful that the county will be able to reform low-level offenders en masse through treatment, Krisberg said, keeping them on the county level should result in improved public safety.

“Prison is a toxic and crime-generating experience,” Krisberg said. “Putting low-level offenders in prison makes them much worse.”

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