In May of 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that the conditions in California prisons were so horrendous that they violated protections against cruel and unusual punishment and ordered California to reduce its prison population by 35,000-40,000 inmates by 2013.
The order came at a time when the state budget could no longer afford the third-largest prison system in the world and the pressure was on to pass the responsibility to counties at a far lower cost. Another compelling reason was that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has failed at doing what it said it would do: rehabilitate prisoners.
Enter the Public Safety Realignment Act of November 2011: Individuals who commit nonviolent, non-serious, non-sex crimes will be sent to county jails instead of state prison. They will be supervised by each county’s Probation Department instead of California Department of Parole and parole violators will no longer be returned to state prison.
Realignment is the biggest shift in the criminal justice system in the past 25 years and criminal justice advocates around the country are watching to see how it plays out. Victor Rubin is vice president for Research at Policy Link – a national research institute based in Oakland.
“Realignment presents a potential for re-thinking the entire system of criminal justice,” Rubin said. “When the state gives a progressive county like Alameda the freedom and flexibility it needs, major changes can take place.”
But these changes can only take place if the county is innovative in how it deals with the new influx of offenders.
“Don’t just rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic,” recommends a report by Dr. Barry Krisberg at the University of California, Berkeley’s, School of Law. The report recommends ending unnecessary incarceration of people awaiting trial, increasing the use of diversion, alternative sentencing and the use of GPS monitoring, along with developing more of a restorative justice approach to crime.
“We operated in the spirit of realignment before realignment by sending fewer people to prison and by creating a strong re-entry program,” John Keene, deputy chief probation officer for Adult Services, said. Alameda County had an added planning advantage over other counties because of the work that was done by the Alameda County Re-Entry Network in 2007. Their strategic plan advocated for more housing and employment support – all goals that fall in line with the intention of realignment.
Will the money be enough and in the right direction?
“Alameda County is ahead of the game in terms of planning, but the question is if there is enough money going to the right places to make the difference?” asked Junious Williams, the executive director of Oakland’s Urban Strategies Institute that oversaw the development of the strategic plan. “The majority of the money is going to the sheriff’s department and we need more discussion on creating alternatives to holding people in county jail.”
The sheriff and probation departments both agree that the formula, which determined how much money each county got, was severely flawed as it was based mostly on each county’s average daily number of state prison inmates.
“The formula should have been based on population then the crime rate, not on the number of people we had been sending to prison,” Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern said. Undersheriff Richard Lucia agreed.
“In essence, the county was penalized for not sending people to state prison,” Lucia said.
An ACLU report on realignment entitled “California at a Crossroads,” stated that Alameda County received $9.2 million with a 1.6 million population and a crime rate of 2.8 percent, while San Bernadino County received $25.8 million for 2.2 million population and a crime rate of 2.2 percent – almost two and half times what Alameda received.
Making the switch from parole to probation
It’s not just problems with the money formula that make realignment especially challenging. Some former inmates will not get access to the services they had when they were under parole.
“People assumed that we would just slap probation on top of what already existed for parolees, but that has not been the case,” Keene said. “The Department of Corrections had an extensive network to get substance abuse treatment and transitional housing to parolees, but that has changed because the probation department does not have contracts with those programs.”
Raynetta Lewis is the program coordinator at Medford House – a residential treatment program for the formerly incarcerated that serves many Oakland residents. The highly structured program offers everything from 12-Step meetings, non-violent communication and “cognitive restructuring,” which examines the thinking that contributes to criminality.
Lewis has already seen the downside of realignment.
“All newly released parolees are under supervision with the probation department and we don’t have a contract to serve them,” Lewis said. “I get dozens of calls from desperate men who can’t come here because they are no longer under parole. I hope they get this straightened out or a lot of these men aren’t going to get the treatment they need.”
According to Carissa Pappas, the management analyst at the Alameda County Probation Department, there were 558 new cases released to the department since realignment took effect in November 2011 and it is estimated that there will be more than 1,000 released by October of this year. It is not known how many of those individuals needed substance abuse treatment or transitional housing that was not available to them because they are now under probation supervision instead of parole.
“We didn’t have sufficient time to turn this ship around,” Keene said. “When parole left, they took all the maps, all the instructions on how to run the ship, they didn’t tell us where the gas station was and they said ‘by the way, we were already headed in this direction, good luck figuring out how to get back.’ So now we have the parolees in lifeboats on the side trying to catch and up and figure out which way to go. We are just trying to slow down the ship with legislative rewrites to fix some of the gaps.”
What constitutes success?
“If realignment is successful,” Sheriff Ahern said, “the numbers of arrests and re-offenses will decrease.”
Ahern said he would like to expand some of Santa Rita County Jail’s training programs that provide certificates in areas such as cosmetology and restaurant preparation along with basic education so offenders have better chances of being successful.
Even though the sheriff’s department received the lion’s share of the funds for the county, Ahern sees challenges ahead.
“Extra inmates mean extra housing,” he admitted. “We might get some inmates with 10-15 year sentences and our system is not designed for that. More people will need access to the jail and we need extra staff to provide security to escort them in and out.”
Deputy Chief Keene said that the biggest challenge for the probation department will be to streamline services with one point person making sure former inmate’s needs are addressed.
“The department’s new assessment tool looks at everything from anti-social thinking, education, substance abuse, relationships, housing, to job experience,” he said. “We are going to track what services each client received in order to see what effect it has on recidivism.”
Keene said that the probation department would be taking a more holistic approach: “We will ask the offender: Who are your supports? What are the underlying reasons for your criminality? What has been the impact of your custody on minor children? We want to help them build relationships because we know that helps them stay out of jail.”
And helping people stay out of jail is one of the major goals of realignment. “But,” said Policy Links’ Rubin, “We need to remember that this is not just a question of adding more services – it is an economic opportunity and jobs issue.”
In their commentary, “Looking at Realignment Through The Lens of Equity,” Rubin and Angela Blackwell emphasize, “This population endures the worst educational outcomes, the highest unemployment rates and health issues that threaten well-being and life expectancy and diminish the prospects for overcoming the other disparities. The consequences of poverty and the legacy of racism include very high rates of incarceration.”
Editor’s Note: Since 1984, the state has added 21 prisons raising the total to 33. In that same period, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the inmate population swelled from 24,000 to more than 160,000. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, most of the growth occurred between 1987 and 1998 as a result of tougher sentencing laws and policies such as the Three Strikes law. This led to a prison construction boom that was unparalleled anywhere else in the country, with California becoming the third-largest prison system in the world. Even with 33 prisons, California found itself facing a massive problem of overcrowding. Gymnasiums were transformed into housing units with triple-decker bunk beds and with as many as 54 men sharing one toilet.