Cautious optimism defines current state of California prison realignment

150 150 Chris Nelson

The realignment happening via AB 109 aims to keep these halls as empty as possible (photo: derekskey/Flickr)

The piece of legislation that was born of a Supreme Court mandate to lessen the population of California’s overcrowded state prisons by shifting low-level offenders to county facilities, AB 109, has been in effect since October.

Proponents of the legislation are quick to remind that this is a slow burn toward reducing the sky-high recidivism rate in California. In other words, slashing the number of offenders who find their way back into jail or prison after release isn’t something that can be done overnight.

Very preliminary data do show a reduction in repeat offenders in counties like Santa Cruz that are using realignment money from the state to implement programs which focus on reintegration over incarceration.

Internally, the apparatus that will be handling the state’s realignment efforts has undergone significant restructuring. Jurisdiction over realignment, along with the primary functions of the Corrections Standards Authority (CSA) are now a part of the new Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC).

An online seminar, sponsored by California Forward’s Partnership for Community Excellence, held Wednesday laid out much of the BSCC’s functions and goals.

The goals of the new Board are varied and the body shows great promise if they can achieve them, despite some possible systemic speed-bumps.

First, it is meant to bring a broad base of stake-holders together. Second, it must assess the impact of the realignment from the state to county facilities of non-violent, non-sexual, non-serious offenders. Third, it will attempt to not only streamline and improve efficiency wherever possible, but also spearhead an unprecedented level of data sharing between previously siloed entities in the justice system.

The gathering of stakeholders is a given. Left hands talking to right ones is always beneficial to any endeavor. The process of assessing realignment requires this if it is to be done properly. 

Previously, the tendency was to lump data from probation offices, jails and prisons into one group and attempt to analyze offender patterns of entering and exiting the justice system in aggregate.

Instead, understanding repeat offenses must be looked at in degrees and as progressions between entities. Minor parole violations must be looked at differently than a repeat violent offense that lands someone back in prison. 

This makes the data-sharing initiative vital. Unfortunately, one of the main misses with AB 109 is the lack of a set requirement that counties track and provide data at the level of detail necessary to accurately assess the realignment. Many are doing so despite the lack of requirement, but there is no standard and some do it better than others. 

Over the course of the slow burn, it is critical that research and analyses be done, despite the lack of formal requirement. Again, the Board shows great promise in this respect.

It could wind up being scattered because of the many other responsibilities under its auspices. It could wind up being disbanded by a future administration before any real work is done.

But for now, we at California Forward are hopeful that it can provide some leadership in the area of realignment and ultimately demonstrate the effectiveness of the most significant change to the California justice system in 30 years.


Chris Nelson

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