This week in Realignment: August 16, 2013

150 150 Christopher Nelson

This has been a week of awakenings.

We already knew where the Obama Administration’s head was at with regard to shifting the paradigm on drug abuse and mental illness among offenders. This much was clear in the language of the Affordable Care Act.

But Attorney General Eric Holder put a public stamp on the administration’s philosophical shift away from incarceration as a fix-all solution to the full spectrum of criminals (and the gamut of issues each one brings to the table) in a speech he gave on Monday to the American Bar Association.

As we mentioned earlier this week, it’s a fantastic opportunity to flip the script here in California. What was once a demonized solution to the inevitable problem of overcrowding in a state with the largest state prison population of all states in the Union as of 2009, the Federal government is now echoing much of the language that has been slowly gaining prominence in California since AB 109 went into effect in October of 2011. Realignment can become a great California success story if we play our cards right in the coming years.

Now that we are approaching the two year anniversary, we are seeing the likes of the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board offering a firm, educated grasp of the reality and not the drummed up, overblown concerns expressed by many when realignment began:

Despite arguments to the contrary, prison doors will not swing open to allow 10,000 dangerous felons onto the streets. Under Brown’s plan, alternative lockups and continuing attrition will likely account for more than half of the needed population reduction. Prison officials are considering transferring some inmates to leased cells in Los Angeles and Alameda counties and to now-closed facilities in Kern County.

But where the Times really shows it’s understanding of the situation at hand is in its assessment of the core issues that debunk any and all reasoning behind stirring up a frenzy at all about the upcoming release of 10,000 more inmates from state prisons:

That’s the real point here — not that some prisoners will be moving to the post-incarceration portion of their sentences a few months early, but that California has done too little to fix a system under which we deem it normal that prisoners come out at least as dysfunctional as when they went in. Precisely because of crowding and foolish management of the inmate population, California prisons have not only fallen below a minimum constitutional level of medical and mental health care, but also have been notoriously ineffective at purging inmates of their addictions, illnesses, gang ties or antisocial attitudes. One word that appears throughout various reports and federal court orders describes the state’s prison system as “criminogenic” — referring to its high propensity to make inmates more likely, not less, to offend again after their release.

Recent stories coming out of both Sonoma County and Fresno highlight just how much work we have to do in order to right the ship not just in state facilities, but in all 58 counties as well.

Without state mandates on exactly how to implement AB 109, counties are free to embrace old world ideologies with the AB 109 funding they are given (e.g. hiring more law enforcement rather than exploring evidence based programs). Furthermore, two years in, many of them are without any significant data collected or inter-agency cooperation forged to ensure the success of such a massive undertaking. 

It’s not just a matter of the right and left hand not talking, it’s 10 fingers operating independently and without knowledge of each other. That is not a recipe for success.

We commend the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board for using their platform for education and not sensationalism. And we will continue our work here with the Partnership for Community Excellence in promoting evidence-based practices, data gathering and inter-agency collaboration as a means of achieving long-term, long-standing reductions in prison populations and recidivism.


Christopher Nelson

All stories by: Christopher Nelson