AB 109 turns two: What’s next?

150 150 Sharon Aungst

As we mark the two year anniversary of Assembly Bill 109’s implementation, realignment is still not an issue that lends itself easily to sound bites. It’s complex, it’s a long slog without immediate results and the collaboration required to get it right is unprecedented.

What AB 109 offers counties is money to explore alternatives to locking criminals up, throwing away the key and expecting them to be different human beings a year (or many years) later. 

Good things are happening and with a little discipline and some smart tweaks to the law, they will continue to. There is certainly a need for additional reform as well as improved communication and collaboration among stakeholders to maintain this trajectory. 

The most notable casualty in the recent SB 105 compromise package was the sentencing commission. Killing proposals for sentencing commissions is a long-standing tradition for California leadership, which is again choosing to overlook data on the impact of current sentencing policies and practice. And what we have is a main front-end driver of overcrowding.  

Although Senator Steinberg’s press secretary says that the commission is a priority for the next legislative session, history suggests that this will not go anywhere soon. At times sentencing commissions are merely a way to ration prison beds and control fear-mongering lawmakers, but with proper research and ample time they can be truly effective tools for reform. They alone, however, cannot solve the problem of crime and victimization.

California Forward’s Partnership for Community Excellence (PCE) has whittled its focus down to two main areas when looking forward on how to best continue the implementation of AB 109. 

First, promoting data-based decision-making by county leaders based on proven methods and local county data is our primary focus. We know that evidence-based treatment and supervision work and that the interventions chosen will be based on the specific needs of counties in providing viable alternatives to incarceration. 

Second, the PCE is helping counties expand evidence-based treatment interventions by assisting counties in understanding and leveraging the new benefits offered through the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  Offenders will make up one of the largest expansion groups under ACA.  Newly Medi-Cal eligible offenders can receive services that reduce recidivism while saving the counties money.

Inmates with substance use disorders and/or mental illness need targeted treatment to stay out of jail. Without treatment and supervision, offenders will not succeed in the community. Those serving sentences will not be eligible for Medi-Cal except for overnight stays in outside hospitals. By taking advantage of the ACA’s expanded benefits, we improve community corrections and eliminate jail beds used to house offenders who would otherwise fail in the community. 

The state has spent 20 years mired in health care litigation. It’s hard to believe that counties will not suffer the same fate unless we recognize the ACA as one of the few true win-win-wins. October 1 marks the day that enrollment begins. A full 100 percent of medically necessary treatment costs for newly Medi-Cal eligible offenders will be reimbursed by Uncle SAM through 2016, gradually declining to 90 percent by 2020. This is not pocket change. It represents one of the single largest saving opportunities to county correctional spending in decades.

The PCE is holding convenings on Increasing Safety and Reducing Costs under Realignment and the Affordable Care Act, gathering CAOs, criminal justice and health & human services county leaders from one or more counties. Discussions on leveraging the ACA focus on building capacity and delivering much-needed services that lower the risk of re-offending. Counties simply cannot afford to leave federal cash on the table come January 1.

We have come this far. The media is now doing its part to enlighten the broader public as to the opportunities at hand. Let’s begin the third year of AB 109 with a renewed purpose to reduce recidivism, save money, and foster collaboration. 

The best way to keep jail populations down is by addressing the risks and needs of each individual rather than putting them in cold storage hoping for some magical, hands-off transformation that will never come with zero investment in offenders as people who can change.

Sharon Aungst is the Director of California Forward’s Partnership for Community Excellence


Sharon Aungst

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