Contra Costa County shines bright as example of AB 109 success

150 150 Christopher Nelson

The time between when the three judge panel ordered California to dramatically reduce its state prison population to when AB 109 went into effect was quick by any measure, especially for something of this magnitude.

Naturally, some counties have fared better than others under realignment, including new responsibilities for non-violent, non-sexual and non-serious criminal offenders who in the past would have been sent to prison. But according to a study commissioned by Californians for Safety and Justice and released last month by the JFA Institute, there is one county that already had so many cultural and institutional elements in line that is has risen above the rest and serves as a model for how realignment should be implemented. That county is Contra Costa.

“I think it would be fair to say we came from a unique position from the very beginning,” said Philip Kader, Chief of Contra Costa County Probation and by virtue of that title, chair of the Community Corrections Partnership (CCP) that allocates AB 109 funding throughout the county.

In many ways, Contra Costa doesn’t differ too much from other California counties. It has a population of about 1 million, making it the 9th largest county in the state. Its crime rate is about on par with the rest of the state, lest anyone think that a smaller Northern California county might be exempt from some of the troubles that plague its larger brethren down south.

But it differs in one major way: a culture of mutual respect exists between probation, sheriff, the district attorney and public defender without which Contra Costa would not be able to achieve the astounding statistical success it has seen since 2010.

“The bench is very interested in being collaborative,” Kader said. It’s a luxury for a chief of probation and a major reason why Contra Costa’s rate of split sentences is currently above 90 percent (by far the highest of all 58 counties).

Without such a high level of faith in probation’s ability to deliver the necessary services and supervision to offenders with, the judicial sector of a county is far less likely to pursue split sentence and will instead opt for straight ones that offer no post-release supervision or treatment options whatsoever.

“As an example, soon after AB 109 was passed, the agencies met to review what would be the best approaches, based on evidence, to managing the influx of new county jail inmates,” the report states. “Based on the decisions made in the early meetings of the key agencies, there was a consensus that maximizing the use of ‘split sentencing’ and contracted treatment services would be the desired strategy.”

According to the report, the county allocated about 60 percent of its AB 109 funds to “programs and services designed to assists people convicted of crimes,” including health services. There is also a focus on guided reentry, which is made possible by the high rate of split sentences.

The emphasis on providing these services not only help prevent recidivism on people leaving jails, it also keeps more out of prison and jail to begin with. The county’s per capita jail population and rate at which they send offenders to state prisons are well below state averages.

“If other California counties would behave like Contra Costa, the state prison population would be roughly half of what it is today,” said Dr. James Austin, architect of the study.

“Contra Costa has a culture of trying to keep people locally, they just don’t seem to have an interest in sending their problems to state agencies,” he said to explain both their low rate of prison disposition rate and high usage of split sentencing. “As a result, their jail population hasn’t grown a bit under AB 109.”

There are several takeaways here. Contra Costa was already in a good position before AB 109 ever went into effect. Once it happened, they were able to excel at implementation and keep their jail populations at pre-realignment levels through having a strong culture of collaboration among all key players in the justice system and specifically a well-respected probation department that has proven itself capable of delivering the evidence based services that are proven alternatives to incarceration.

Other counties can’t simply manifest a different culture because they desire one, but it’s clear Contra Costa has a model that works in the 9th largest county of 58 in the state. The admiration for Chief Kader’s work even extends to the County Board of Supervisors.

“Too frequently government is criticized when things go wrong without getting credit when positive change happens. Under very difficult circumstances and challenges, and special efforts to collaborate across different county agencies, we have a success story that deserves to be told,” said Supervisor Karen Mitchoff, Chair of the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors. “I applaud Chief Kader’s leadership at the Probation Department.”

You can read the report in full by clicking here.


Christopher Nelson

All stories by: Christopher Nelson