California invests millions in new jails to deal with overcrowding
On October 1, 2011, California experienced a major change to its criminal justice system. After the Supreme Court ordered the state to drastically reduce its prison population, the Legislature decided to shift responsibility for a wide variety of offenders to the local level. KALW’s criminal justice editor, Rina Palta has been following the developments. She joined Holly Kernan in the studio.
* * *
HOLLY KERNAN: Let’s start with a quick refresher on realignment. What does it do?
RINA PALTA: Realignment basically changes the punishment for a large group of felonies. For things like drug possession, petty theft, and car theft, prison used to be an option on the table. And some counties in California were using prison quite a bit for people who committed these low-level, non-violent felonies. So when the state was told to reduce its prison population, this is one of the big groups that it identified of people who should not be in state prison. The other group was parole violators, who generally serve really short, 90-day sentences.
So as of October 1, these offenders are officially not the state’s responsibility anymore. They’re left to the counties to decide what to do with. And the counties can opt for a variety of punishments, like house arrest, probation, community service, mandatory drug treatment, or incarceration at the county jail.
KERNAN: So it sounds like the state has essentially given a large set of its responsibilities to the counties. How are counties paying for these new offenders?
PALTA: Well, along with this new responsibility does come some money. But not a lot. Counties were given an amount based on the number of people they generally send to prison, and that can be divided between the sheriff’s department, probation, and whatever other services are needed for this new population. And the county can basically decide to divvy up the money any way it sees fit.
KERNAN: One of the issues we’ve talked about a lot regarding realignment is whether the new law will lead to reform in California, which is a state has that’s spent so much money on prisons and has incarcerated so many people for so long. So now we are one month in – what’s your sense of whether or not things are changing in California?
PALTA: Realignment has absolutely been billed as a reform measure by Governor Jerry Brown’s administration. But that message was not well received in many corners of the state – mainly Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and a lot of other counties that have a lot of people to deal with now that they won’t be in prison. And those counties continue to exert a whole lot of political pressure on the governor and on the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. In a sort of preview of how Republicans are planning on playing this issue, the Assembly GOP released a video in October, attacking the governor. Here’s a clip:
CA REPUBLICAN PARTY VIDEO: Assemblyman Nielsen says realignment is a scheme for the state to transfer some of its budget problems to cash-strapped counties and to release prisoners early without getting its hands dirty. “They are dangerous. Many have serious and violent offenses. Every citizen should be preoccupied with their personal safety and the safety of their family members.”
KERNAN: That was a clip from a video being circulated by California’s Republican party, attacking the governor for what they say is threatening public safety and dumping the responsibility for prison overcrowding on the counties. Rina, are Nielsen’s criticisms fair? What are the public safety concerns here?
PALTA: Well there’s no question that California counties don’t have the space right now to house all the people currently in jail as well as the new realigned population. So counties may have to let people out of jail earlier and that may or may not cause an uptick in crime. Jails could let out some people who are awaiting trial and can’t afford bail, which is really the vast majority of the jail population right now. But there is always a chance that someone in custody, even if they haven’t been convicted of a crime yet, could be dangerous if they’re let out.
KERNAN: And what about the other concern, that realignment will lead to more prison construction in the state that’s already got a lot of prisoners?
PALTA: Sure, well at first the state said that wouldn’t happen unless counties invested their own funds in building new jails, and prison secretary Matt Cate even said the state was deliberately not giving counties enough money to realignment to imprison the same number of people the state has been locking up, that since lockups are the most expensive option, counties would have a natural incentive to look into alternatives. But recently the state has announced that they’re giving counties $600 million to construct new jail beds and in the reform community this is being viewed as California once again building itself out of its prison problem instead of working on alternatives to incarceration.
Here’s what Emily Harris, statewide coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget has to say about this development.
EMILY HARRIS: It’s pretty terrifying when 35 of our 58 counties are wanting to build more jail cells. When we think about California’s history, we’ve just been addicted to incarcerating people. And I think it’s having an impact on our economy, on our neighborhoods, on our community members. And if we don’t do something soon to stop it, we’re going to be just continuing a legacy of mass incarceration and thinking about where California will be in five years or 10 years, we’re going to be in 58 Plata-Coleman cases because we’re not actually changing the conditions for people in prisons and jails.
KERNAN: Rina, how is this all playing out in the Bay Area?
PALTA: Leaders in the Bay Area right now are feeling somewhat double-shafted. In the first round of funding for realignment, they didn’t get as much money as other counties because San Francisco and Alameda counties have really done a good job of keeping low-level offenders at the local level not in prison. And now, as Harris points out, the state, instead of giving more money to the kinds of things that the Bay Area has tried to invest in – you know, rehabilitation programs, drug treatment, half-way houses – the state is giving out money for jail construction and jail construction only.
As for outside of the Bay Area, it’s hard to imagine why a county like San Bernardino or Los Angeles or Sacramento would take their own money and invest in alternatives if the state is offering up money to do what has long been the default mode in this state, and that’s add more beds.
Follow Rina Palta’s coverage of prison overcrowding in California and realignment at our criminal justice blog, The Informant.