We spend a lot of time playing so-called “inside baseball” here when discussing Realignment. We get key stakeholders of criminal justice in the room together, we try to share our knowledge with them as well as get them to exchange knowledge with each other.
Truth be told, Realignment is a niche issue that has been thrust into the spotlight over the past two years with the passing of AB 109 and the focus shifting to the 58 counties of California and how they deal with new burdens being placed upon them.
There was no pilot program, there was no test county from which a successful roadmap could be gleaned. When the Supreme Court ruled that California’s state prison’s were overcrowded to the point that inmate health care was a form of cruel and unusual punishment (banned by the US Constitution), action had to be taken swiftly to reduce populations.
Many offenders with non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual offenses (“triple-nons”) either stayed at the county level instead of getting sent to a state facility. Many others were physically transferred to the county level from state prison.
All of these were quick solutions the state had to come up with to comply with the court ruling. All of these solutions mean that more people with criminal backgrounds will back in the community in which they committed the crime. This doesn’t mean that they will be any less safe as a result because offenders being released early for numerous reasons (good behavior, for example) is par for the course and not something new by way of AB 109.
But it does mean that this is an issue that every Californian should care about. When I began delving into this issue here at California Forward, I didn’t know the difference between a jail or a prison, between probation and parole, or between the Sheriff and the police. My sense is that many Californians (and people across the country) use those terms interchangeably with no rhyme or reason, as I once did.
So it is with this in mind that our Realignment in Review broadens its scope beyond the game of (inside) baseball and to some terms that most of the work of the Partnership for Community Excellence (PCE) assumes people will know…but in fact, they might not.
Parole is supervised release of an inmate from a prison sentence to the community. Probation is for offenders who were sentenced to probation by the court or have been sentenced to a period of supervision after serving a jail term. Both those on parole and those on probation are living in their community – it is just an issue of who is doing the supervision. Because state prisons typically receive the higher risk, more dangerous offenders with longer sentences, state parole agents have more training in tracking down more dangerous offenders int he field. There is also a third category a released offender can fall into called Post Release Community Supervision (PRCS), which is a new category specific to AB 109. This is a low-level, triple non offender who was on parole but was realigned to fall under the jurisdiction of county probation.
Probation officers are commonly thought of more as social workers in some areas of criminal justice according to people I have spoken with as opposed to agents trained to deal with potentially dangerous individuals in the field. Because their caseload typically consists of people who were given supervision instead of a jail sentence with a state term, they often deal with those in need of addiction counseling or treatment for mental illness, among offenders on the lower end of the risk spectrum. This is not to say that state prisons don’t have people with addiction issues or mental illnes, quite the opposite, but probation officers deal heavily with these types, and even more so after AB 109.
Given the contrast between the two areas, it’s easy to see why the realignment that occurred by way of AB 109 put several different types of stressors on county probation. First, their caseloads increased. One of the tenets behind Realignment is that lower risk offenders who landed in state prison would do better when back in their communities and close to friends and family. Granted, the state is sending millions of dollars to the counties via AB 109 to support these efforts, but that money is earmarked for the PRCS population only and doesn’t necessarily directly impact those who were not realigned. Probation budgets were already stretched thin after a decade of cuts and raw caseload has been something counties have grappled with over the past two years. Many of those cited in one of Dr. Joan Petersilia’s recent reports on the county perspectives on AB 109 are quoted as saying that things are moving in the right direction two years in.
Second, they inevitably have to deal with offenders a bit further up the risk spectrum than they are likely used to. This, combined with an increase in case load, means that more people miss check-ins and are given “absconder” status. This creates a grey area between probation officers and local police.
On the one hand, police are better-trained to seek out those who are missing in the field. On the other, they may not have the type of training that can deal with a situation delicately and maintain the level of trust and social sensitivity that may be required with certain types of offenders to keep them on the path toward recovery and out of jail for good.
This barely scratches the surface in terms of the myriad of issues that probation must deal with and how AB 109 in general has placed a greater burden on counties to bring the state in compliance with the highest court in the land. But it hopefully sheds some light on the foundation of these issues.
Next up in a following piece: prison vs. jails.
This is part one in a series that presents California Forward’s perspective on some of the basic tenets of all things Realignment and AB 109