Checking in: Where does prison realignment in California stand right now?

150 150 Christopher Nelson

Alcatraz is one of the few prisons in the state of California with ample cells that look like this right now (photo: Flickr/miss_millions)

We are now approximately 17 months into Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to move many prisoners from state to county supervision.  Realignment, as it is known, is the implementation of AB 109, which was a solution to the Supreme Court mandate that CA state prison populations be reduced to combat overcrowding and poor health conditions.

The plan was contentious from the start. Critics said that it would result in the overcrowding simply shifting to the counties, that the funding wasn’t earmarked properly or that the committees designated to distribute funds were structured too heavily in favor of probation and sheriff department officials.

The media has mostly latched on to the easy narrative that more criminals would be released back into society. People were indeed released from jail early, but not prisons, and the provisions for AB 109 stated that those released would come from a group known as NNNs or “non-non-nons,” shorthand for non-violent, non-sexual, non-serious offenders.

But as is always the case, nothing this complex, involving billions of dollars of funding and a shift of tens of thousands of prisoners across 58 counties, is strictly black and white.

At California Forward, we have been strong advocates of evidence-based practices and results-oriented adjustments to the process, which are just fancy ways of saying that we should explore new ways to reintegrate offenders back into society to prevent further offenses while keeping track of what’s working and what’s not so that we can tweak accordingly.

“We have worked tirelessly through our Partnership for Community Excellence to champion best practices,” said Jim Mayer, California Forward’s Executive Director. “We have seen excellent results in counties such as Marin, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, and Yolo counties, who became strong partners in the crusade for promoting evidence-based practices.”

As an example, the PCE, in conjunction with partners Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ), ACLU of Northern California, Californians for Safety and Justice, Leaders in Community Alternatives and the Crime and Justice Institute published a report on how the aforementioned counties made great strides in safely reducing their pretrial population, creating a model that could be successfully implemented in any county across the state.

The PCE held its quarterly Forum on preparing for the new parole revocation process in Sacramento today.

Despite any progress made, however, there is still much work to be done. Clearly, in a process this complex with so many cooks in the kitchen, there are also many potential pitfalls along the way that could lead to the outright failure of what is the most ambitious overhaul to California’s correctional system in decades.

Two recent articles on the subject represent a cause and effect relationship as to how realignment has faltered thus far.

In one, ex-offender, current Masters degree holder and prominent lecture circuit voice on realignment and reentry Michael Santos deplores the ways in which realignment funds have been haphazardly allocated without any being earmarked for evaluation. In one example, he cites how Sacramento County used $20 million of their allocated $29 million to bolster law enforcement salaries with far less given to inmate programs.

Santos refers to prisons as “people warehouses” and laments the sheer lack of credence bestowed upon alternatives to further incarceration, such as “educational, vocational, cognitive-skills development, mentoring, and other evidence-based programs proven to lower recidivism and make communities safer.”

In the second, the Associated Press details a string of lawsuits brought against California counties, with the most recent filing in Riverside, claiming that county facilities are now facing the same issues AB 109 was meant to address at the state level:

“The lawsuits allege the subpar conditions that led to legal actions against the state’s prison system – overcrowding, poor medical and dental care, inadequate mental health treatment – are repeating themselves at the county level. They note that jails designed for short-term stays are now being flooded with thousands of new inmates, many of whom are serving long-term sentences.”

The process of realignment is scheduled to continue, so the window for it to succeed is far from closed. In taking the battle back to the courts over whether or not state prisons are now compliant with the Supreme Court’s mandate, Gov. Brown has at least bought valuable time for those who wish to take a breath and analyze what has happened so far rather than forging ahead with further transfers of inmates, now on hold while the legal affairs resume.

Furthermore, we will continue our work through the PCE in hopes that other counties follow suit with Santa Clara. Please visit our website to follow our work and utilize the many resources we publish and routinely update.


Christopher Nelson

All stories by: Christopher Nelson