Realignment in Review: Two studies reinforce long term goals for Realignment

150 150 Christopher Nelson

Two studies, one in-state and one national, dominate the world of realignment news this week.

First, Dr. Joan Petersilia of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, who is one of the most respected researchers on corrections issues in California, just issued volume 2 of her “Realignment in Review” that attempts to answer how California county stakeholders view public safety realignment.

She calls California a “high-stakes test kitchen” for “a nation seeking new correctional approaches after the costly and arguably unproductive era of mass incarceration.” She also says its too early to give any credit or place any blame on realignment with regard to the state’s 67 percent recidivism rate.

Instead she spoke with those at the county level bearing the brunt of AB-109ers, as those who were sent to county jails from state prisons are sometimes called:

“Broadly speaking, Realignment gets mixed reviews so far. Our interviews elicited a portrait of counties struggling, often heroically, to carry out an initiative that was poorly planned and imposed upon them almost overnight, giving them little time to prepare,” the “Findings” section of the report begins, likening the first year to drinking from a fire hose.

When talking with those in Probation, she said she encountered the most “unified voice.” One might think that as the agency bearing the single largest increase in workload due to AB 109 at the state or county level, Probation would have an axe to grind, but that wasn’t the case:

They unequivocally felt that Realignment gave them an opportunity to fully test whether well-tailored rehabilitation services can keep lower-level felony offenders from committing new crimes and returning to prison. If Realignment is to amount to more than an experimental emergency response to a court directive over prison crowding, it will deepen heavily on how well probation agencies deliver effective programs and services.

It is encouraging to hear this coming from the county rank and file in probation departments, and it underscores the dichotomy of realignment itself: it was borne of urgent, short-term necessity (that still persists) yet can be a major paradigm shift in the long term. 

As the state still grapples with that stubborn 137.5 percent of capacity it must reduce the state prison population to, it is imperative to not lose sight of what could and should happen in counties once that magical number is hit. Population reduction is only the first step. The real opportunities lie in probation and post-release supervision, as pointed out by Dr. Petersilia, as well as in sentencing reform. The study also suggests that some of the burden shfit back to the state in the case of repeat probation violators or by keeping the more serious offenders on state parole to begin with.

Beyond those recommendations to alleviate some presure at the county level, it is really a matter of two things at this point: data and capacity. If the former is collected and analyzed and the latter is provided, recidivism will indeed drop in California.

Second, a Pew study was released that highlights the spiking cost of prison health care across the country in the past decade. It serves to reinforce the urgency with which California Forward’s Partnership for Community Excellence (PCE) has been touting how the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is a huge cost-saving opportunity for California counties.

The study looked at prison health care spending in 44 different states from 2001 through 2008 and determined that spending went up in 42 of those states by a median of 52 percent. Twelve of those states, including California, saw costs rise 90 percent or more. In 39 of the states, health care grew from 10 to 15 percent of corrections budgets by 2008.

The Sacramento Bee has gotten on the ACA bandwagon by way of the Pew Study, citing the $70 million a year the state alone could which in turn came from the LAO’s office. 

Of the four solutions offered by Pew based on interviews with correction health care experts across the country, enrolling eligible prisoners in Medicaid (which is Medi-Cal here in California) is one. The other three:

  • Employing telehealth technologies—video conferencing and digitally transmitted diagnostic data, for example—to facilitate prisoners’ access to care and reduce guarding and transportation costs.
  • Implementing outsourcing agreements that ensure the quality of care and control costs.
  • Using medical or geriatric parole policies to release offenders who are deemed too sick or frail to pose a public safety risk.

Only Medi-Cal enrollment has tangible, quantifiable and immediate benefits, however. In less than two months, federal reimbursement will begin for all medically necessary treatment of a vastly expanded pool of inmates. Counties are gearing up with the help of the PCE. Visit the Resources page to learn more about exactly how counties are readying themselves by way of the PCE-hosted regional convenings.


Christopher Nelson

All stories by: Christopher Nelson