AB109 offers significant state prison reform

150 150 Kathy Jett

Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle

AB109 is the unassuming name for the single most significant reform in a century to California’s prison system and the state’s approach to criminal justice.

Beginning Oct. 1, anyone convicted of nonviolent, nonsexual and/or non-serious criminal offenses (a.k.a. triple nons) will head to county jail instead of state prison. Anyone up for parole on a similar offense will be supervised by county officials.

Practically, AB109 was born of a U.S. Supreme Court mandate (in Brown vs. Plata) that California act swiftly to remedy financially and humanely unsustainable prison populations. The state’s budget crisis accelerated the Legislature‘s decision to make it part of this year’s budget.

Philosophically, the shift is an admission that simply locking up low-level offenders at a cost of about $55,000 per person per year is just not fiscally responsible and will not work. More than two-thirds of these offenders find their way back into the prison system after release – one of the worst rates in the country.

The new law equips courts and local law enforcement with proven alternatives to incarceration, such as GPS monitoring, home detention, short-term incarceration, mandated residential treatment services and day reporting centers.

The law grants counties authority over spending decisions, creating a Community Corrections Partnership with an executive committee that will oversee implementation. Offenders will be ranked on a high, medium or low “risk to re-offend” assessment scale, similar to what insurance companies use to categorize health risks of their insured. This will allow probation and local law enforcement officers to view offenders not just by the penal code crime committed but also by the individual risk to re-offend.

AB109 is an extraordinary accomplishment for our state. It is the first criminal justice policy that includes cost-effective, evidence-based alternatives to incarceration.

California has lagged behind the nation in its criminal justice policies. Over the last two decades, incarceration has been the only answer to crime in a state with the most expensive prison system in the world.

So California looked elsewhere for inspiration. Everything in AB109 has been derived by successes achieved in other states. Alternatives to traditional incarceration and punishment have proven to be effective, and many states have developed community corrections because they could not afford to simply incarcerate without rehabilitating.

The community corrections partnerships require that people and organizations that might not normally sit down at the same table do just that.

Anyone can attend planning meetings and question whether counties are spending funds based on research and best practices, listen to the debate and ultimately hold their officials accountable.

After serving 32 years in state government, overseeing Proposition 36 and serving as undersecretary of programs for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, I am convinced that we need to implement this realignment to reduce the prison population, stop wrongly spending precious state dollars and close the prison system’s “revolving door.”

Gov. Jerry Brown promised last week to fight for a constitutional guarantee of funding for this realignment. Once the money is guaranteed, it will be a matter of continually working with local communities to get it right.

Kathryn P. Jett is a former state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation undersecretary for programs. She is a criminal justice consultant for California Forward.


Kathy Jett

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