Prison realignment: It’s here
This weekend, an important bill will go into effect in the state of California. It’s called AB 109, but most people know it as “realignment.” It was crafted as a response to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling back in May, which ordered the state to drastically reduce its prison population by as many as 40,000 inmates. What lawmakers came up with is an idea that’s been floating around the criminal justice world for some time: moving the least dangerous inmates back to the communities they came from.
KALW News’ criminal justice editor, Rina Palta, has been covering prison overcrowding, and the realignment solution. She joined Ben Trefny to discuss how realignment is going to be implemented throughout the state.
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BEN TREFNY: So, Rina, prisons will stop accepting these less dangerous criminals and they’ll be kept in county jails. Are they ready for that?
RINA PALTA: There’s a little panic in the air in some counties. Los Angeles, for example, isn’t looking forward to handling 10,000 new felony offenders per year. Officials from some of the other southern counties, which are traditionally a little more “tough on crime” and, therefore, have a lot of people coming back, have expressed anger over the shift. But here in the Bay Area, there’s a lot of support for the policy. Wendy Still, San Francisco’s Chief Probation Officer, worked for years in the state prison system at a high level, and had this to say about realignment:
WENDY STILL: It’s the right thing to do. There are 47,000 inmates that cycle in and out of prison and spend less than 90 days. And having spent so many decades working in that system, it’s a waste of money and it doesn’t provide any type of meaningful intervention to actually change lives.
TREFNY: Rina, how does realignment address this cycle in and out of prison that Chief Still is talking about?
PALTA: One of the major ways is that now offenders won’t be sent back to prison for parole violations. Most people have probably heard by now that California’s recidivism rate is about 66% – that means two out of three people who leave prison go back within three years. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve been convicted of a new crime. Over half of the offenders who return to prison do so because of a parole violation, according to a study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2009.
TREFNY: And what exactly constitutes a parole violation?
PALTA: Currently, nearly everyone who leaves prison basically has to sign a contract, usually for three years, that says they’ll report to a parole officer and abide by certain restrictions, like taking drug tests or showing up for meetings, and it states that law enforcement doesn’t need a warrant to search their house. But if you break that contract at all, your parole officer can send you back to prison. Also, if law enforcement thinks that you’ve committed a new crime, but they don’t have the resources or enough proof to charge you with that crime, there’s a mechanism for sending you back to prison on a parole violation instead. That requires less proof, but also results in up to a year in prison, often less.
There’s been a slow drawdown over the past couple of years in issuing parole violations, but realignment takes it much further and says to counties: First of all, you’re responsible now for supervising nonviolent people getting out of prison, and if any of those people commit a violation, they’ll have to serve time for that violation in a county jail – or even better, counties find another sort of punishment besides putting violators in jail for 90 days. So where you’ve had something like 5,000 per month of these parole violators going to prison in the past, that’s no longer going to happen.
TREFNY: So, you said that counties might find other sorts of punishment besides putting violators in jail for 90 days. What’s another punishment that they might put forth?
PALTA: There’s something called “flash incarceration,” which is just a few days, sticking someone in jail for a few days.
TREFNY: A sort of shock treatment, in a way?
PALTA: Exactly. It’s kind of like, you have to obey these rules, but we’re not going to disrupt your life and make it so you can’t go to your job or pick up your kids. We’re going to make this short and sweet, just so you get the message. There’s also house arrest issues, there’s ankle monitoring; there are all kinds of things you can do.
TREFNY: So if they end up incarcerating them, do the county jails have space to handle a lot of new parole violators?
PALTA: That’s really the 500-million-dollar question. That’s about how much money the state is giving the counties in the first nine months of realignment to handle these parolees and the new low-level offenders they’ll be absorbing. And pretty much anyone will tell you, that’s not enough money.
TREFNY: So what happens then, when the $500 million runs out? Will counties just be forced to let people out?
PALTA: Kind of. For the average citizen, one of the biggest questions going into realignment has been: What’s different about keeping someone in jail for a crime instead of prison, or having the county supervise someone instead of the state? Well, if counties lock people up for their full sentences and don’t do anything differently from what the state has been doing, then there won’t be much of a difference, and we may continue to deal with these high rates of recidivism and overcrowding. I asked Matt Cate, the secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation about that and here’s what he said:
MATT CATE: There’s no question. If the county tries to emulate the state, if the community corrections partnership sits down and says, “You know what? Let’s take the money and re-create the state system exactly as the state runs it.” Number one, there’s not enough money to do that. And number two, I think we’ve demonstrated that’s really not the right approach. We finally know in California that you’ve got to combine the tough on crime law enforcement with a heavy dose of treatment if you want to reduce recidivism.
PALTA: What Cate is saying is that without sufficient funds, counties will have to come up with other ways of handling these low-level offenders, besides locking them up, or they’re going to have to come up their own cash to keep them in jail.
But people should know that realignment will not lead to felons getting released to the streets. If anyone is released, it’s more likely that it will be people who are in jail now – who’ve committed misdemeanors, or are awaiting trial. Either they’ll be let out early or put in community programs or on house arrest. You know, over 70% of people in jail in California are not serving time for a crime – they’re awaiting trial and they’re in jail, many of them, because they couldn’t afford bail.
But the other money question is if there’s even enough funding coming in to adequately beef up these alternative programs, like drug programs, and house arrests, and ankle monitoring. The answer may be no.
TREFNY: And what about public safety? If fewer people are locked up, that also means offenders are likely to face less time behind bars. So, there is this fear that this will result in a hike in crime.
PALTA: Certainly, there are many people who believe crime will go up, at least at first, before the system has time to even out and get rehabilitation programs into gear. But down the line, the hope is that counties will do a better job than the state at keeping people from re-offending. And Secretary Cate from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says this is the best option when you consider the alternative.
CATE: Well, let’s keep in mind that absent realignment, we’d be releasing 35,000 prisoners onto the streets in the next two years. No one wants to talk about that option because obviously that’s a disaster for public safety. So when I hear someone saying, “Oh my gosh, I might have to release a low-level pre-trial detainee?” Well that’s a much better option than a wholesale release of state prisoners under the three-judge panel decision and the Supreme Court’s decision.
PALTA: So Cate’s point is that something needs to be done to get California in compliance with the Constitution, and they’re hoping this is the best way to do it.
Read more about prison realignment at our criminal justice blog the Informant.