This week in Realignment: August 9, 2013

150 150 Christopher Nelson

The topic of public safety realignment continues to gain more and more momentum as the public and politicians alike realize the stake local communities have in it as well as the financial implications it has to the 58 counties that comprise California.

The Supreme Court recently struck down an effort by Gov. Jerry Brown and his legal team to halt the release of an additional 10,000 inmates from state prisons. The state claims health care has improved dramatically and that releasing another 10,000 prisoners poses a threat.

But now that it’s a reality with a rapidly approaching end-of-year deadline, Sacramento must buckle down and figure out how to make it happen. Senate President Pro Tem Darrel Steinberg (D-Sacramento) is one of the few approaching the issue with a big picture, long-term grasp of the issue. From the Los Angeles Times:

“If the Legislature is called upon to appropriate more money for either local or out-of-state jail capacity that decision, if it comes, must be met with a comparable effort to invest in more substance abuse and mental health treatment,” Steinberg said. “We should not do one without the other.”

He said treating inmates for drug addiction and mental health problems has proven to reduce their odds of returning to prison — which is part of the long-term solution to reducing overcrowding in prisons. The federal court order to empty prison cells is a short-term fix, he said.

“They’re not doing what it takes to reduce recidivism,” Steinberg said.

As it becomes more and more clear that counties, which have already absorbed a great deal of the state’s inmates, cannot handle that many more bodies without recreating the exact conditions that brought about realignment in the first place.

But the out of state solution poses its own list of considerations and complications:

  • We don’t have much time, which puts us at the mercy of other states or private bed contractors when negotiating a price on the contracts to accept our overflow;
  • Finding inmates who don’t have high medical and mental health needs is very difficult and having to send anyone with significant needs also drives up the cost;
  • If we wind up having to send higher-risk inmates, this will also cost more;
  • Inmates are too far away from family which means ties are cut and reentry is more difficult;
  • Courts don’t want these inmates out of state because of technicalities that could allow plaintiffs in the various lawsuits to monitor inmates in their new homes at a cost to the state and with the potential of plaintiffs finding problems in these facilities that could lead to more litigation. 

We bring all this up simply to point out how complicated this all is. We all tend to think “just do x,” but rarely (if ever) is “x” remotely simple in the world of corrections and criminal justice. The sheer number of stakeholders and moving parts means that by nature, accomplishing anything requires a high degree of collaboration and confidence in peers. Conversely, and filings and court orders by nature lead to more adversity, as we have seen over these past months. We must strive to find middle ground.

Fostering that level of collaboration is why California Forward’s Partnership for Community Excellence continues to stage regional convenings throughout the state. We have honed in on the cost-saving and treatment expansion opportunities presented by the Affordable Care Act (ACA)

In fact, the health care costs of those being realigned is at the center of the debate given that it was lack of appropriate health care services dubbed “cruel and unusual punishment” by the Three Judge Panel that brought all of this about. With the ACA and the proposed expansion of the Drug Medi-Cal benefit comes the chance to vastly improve the behavioral services offered to offenders (most of whom have not been eligible for Medi-Cal). And with 100 percent federal reimbursement for the first 3 years and then 90 percent through 2020 for counties who provide those services, the savings potential is monumental.   

As Sen. Steinberg points out, the ultimate goal should be reducing recidivism. Spending the money to send inmates out of state in order to comply with the latest demands of the Supreme Court may be the best solution for the moment, but we should certainly heed his advice about providing more behavioral health services to offenders in the community to keep them there instead of in prison. It is this type of long-term thinking that will truly reduce our state prison population permanently.


Christopher Nelson

All stories by: Christopher Nelson