Explaining big changes in the California prison system

California has what one might call a pressing problem when it comes to its prison system. In May, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed a lower court’s conclusion that California’s prison system is overcrowded and that inmates are being held in conditions that violate the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The state has until the end of June, 2013, to reduce its prison population by 34,000 inmates. 

In the meantime, Governor Jerry Brown’s, plan which goes into effect October 1, will dramatically change the way California approaches criminal justice.

KALW’s criminal justice editor Rina Palta explains how “realignment” of California’s prison system is going to happen. 

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RINA PALTA: Michael Steele and his lawyer are in an interview room at a San Francisco county jail. Steele is 53. He’s been diagnosed with a personality disorder, and he’s a heroin addict. He says he’s got problems, but he’s not a menace.

MICHAEL STEELE: I just do a lot of hustling. Collect cans, things like that. Ask people. I had a lady friend that used to give me money.

But Steele does have a criminal history. It goes back to 1980, when he served a year for robbery. Since then, he’s been in and out of prison on parole violations and four convictions for drug-related crimes.

STEELE: I’ve been doing it, never been over three or four years. But I figure over my life, it’s been 25 years.

The last time Steele was arrested was nearly a year ago. He was out on parole in the Tenderloin District. An officer says he saw Steele hand heroin to another man. Police searched him, and found under a gram of heroin. In the trial, after considering his priors, the judge handed Steele a 14-year sentence for possession of heroin with intent to sell. If he serves that time, Steele will be free again when he’s 67 years old.

STEELE: There’s some people that belong in prison. You’ve got rapists and killers and stuff like that. Arsonists. People that want to harm people, that’s who prison’s meant for. Not somebody who went to buy some dope and get busted for a couple of stacks in their pocket and go to prison for 14 years. That’s not what it’s built for.

That question, of what exactly prison is built for, is at the center of the state’s new realignment plan. As of the end of last year, 25,000 people were in California prisons for drug crimes like possession and sales, and another 30,000 were in for property crimes like theft and burglary. Beginning in October, many of these crimes will no longer be punished with prison time. Instead, counties will have to decide what to do with thousands of people committing car theft, burglary, and other lower level felonies.

David Ball, an assistant law professor at Santa Clara University, says the shift makes sense.

DAVID BALL: Because most of the discretion in the criminal justice system happens at the county level ... It’s not one size fits all here. And that’s maybe the way it should be.

Ball recently released an early draft of his study, called “Tough on Crime on the State’s Dime.” 

BALL: So San Francisco and Fresno County, they have similar population sizes... San Francisco suffered a greater number of violent crimes than Fresno did, but Fresno sent two-and-a-half to seven times as many people to prison each year... And it’s not that Fresno has a worse crime problem, because it doesn’t.

Ball says every one of California’s 58 counties handles criminal justice differently.

BALL: And my objection to that is, if I live in Alameda County, I shouldn’t have to subsidize another county’s choices and they shouldn’t have to subsidize mine.

Up until now, the state has paid for prison, but not for local alternatives – like drug treatment programs. So if Fresno sends a heroin user to prison, the state pays $40,000 a year to keep him locked up. If San Francisco takes that heroin user and puts him in rehab, the county picks up the tab. With realignment, Fresno will still be able to incarcerate a heroin user, but it can’t be in state prison – it’ll have to be in the county jail. San Francisco Undersheriff Jan Dempsey says there’s a difference: County jails aren’t set up to house people for years on end. But in prison... 

JAN DEMPSEY: They have more access to things like TV’s in their cells and radios and things of that nature, that aren’t permitted in a county jail. And how visiting’s conducted. There’s conjugal visits in the state; there’s not conjugal visits in the counties.

The list goes on. In jails, there’s no on-site hospitals and there’s less recreation time. A county jail is set up to house people for a few months, while they’re on trial. A state prison is set up to house people for years. The state will distribute about half a billion dollars to help counties deal with thousands of new felony offenders, but that still won’t cover it all.

David Muhammad, Alameda County’s chief probation officer, says many counties will choose to spend the money on cheaper alternatives, like house arrest, probation, and mandatory rehabilitation programs.

MUHAMMAD: Because of the limitation of funding and the limitation of available jail beds, I don’t think they can do the same thing as the state. We have to be more innovative. We have to be more creative with the limited money that they’re giving us.

Counties will be forced to decide for themselves, and on their own dime, who really needs to be locked up, and who doesn’t.

San Mateo County Sheriff Greg Munks says it will be an opportunity to determine what the county will tolerate.

MUNKS: Is it okay to break into somebody’s car and take their wallet and purse? If you go outside and look at the bus that goes to San Quentin, once a week with 30 or 40 guys from my jail. You wouldn’t just look at them and say, “These are low-level offenders.” Some of them are repeat offenders; they’ve been in the system all their lives.

Come October, many who would otherwise be imprisoned will face different consequences. Munks says he thinks that’ll cause crime to go up in the short term. However, in the long run, he says counties can do a better, more individualized job than the prison system at reforming offenders.

Which brings us back to Michael Steele, who was convicted earlier this year of selling heroin. It’s possible, but not definite, that if he’d been convicted after October 1, he’d be spending time in jail instead of prison. Likely the real difference would have come if realignment were in place earlier in his life. His “low-level” drug offenses and parole violations could have led to rehab instead of a revolving prison door. As it is right now, Steele is due to be transferred to San Quentin any day, sentenced by a judge who said he’d be better off there than on the streets. Steele said that makes him feel lonely.

STEELE: Nobody don’t care no more. It’s just a horrible feeling that you get talked about like that and you can’t help yourself. You can’t say the things that you want to say.

In San Francisco, I’m Rina Palta for Crosscurrents.

Read a full explainer of what's happening with the state's prison shift at KALW’s criminal justice blog: The Informant.