This week in Realignment: June 28, 2013

150 150 Christopher Nelson

Here we go again.

At the end of last week, the now-infamous three judge panel ordered California to immediately begin planning for the release of an additional 10,000 inmates. But with the overcrowding that used to exist in state prisons now transplanted to county jails, the question of where to send them looms larger than ever.

Outside the box thinking in this instance does not necessarily breed quality solutions.

It is easy to lament the solutions on the table. Simply waiting out the battle with the court will just result in mounting fines or worse. Fire camps and halfway houses can only help with so many inmates. Same goes for release of elderly/frail offenders who no longer pose threats or those who have earned “good time credit.” A newly opened prison will only account for about 1,700 of the latest wave.

The most eyebrow raising solution being considered is shipping inmates wholesale to other states. It’s expensive, they can be shipped back for any number of medical reasons or suicide attempts, and it generally places them far away from the positive influence of their families.

And of course, there are always the county jails, which have borne the brunt of AB 109’s realignment thus far. There are private jails. There are community correctional centers. Clearly a piecemeal solution is required this round after already reduced state prison populations by 25,000 inmates since October of 2011.

The national media continues to be captivated by the latest development in this massive undertaking in California. State officials again are sounding the alarm bell of possible spiking crime rates. Others recognize the difficult position Gov. Brown is in and the political triangulation it will require for him to successfully comply with the Supreme Court while still allaying concerns of decreased public safety.

Our thoughts here at the Partnership on the three judge ruling is simply that it is what it is. 

In that light, we see this challenge as an opportunity. We see the chance for the state and the counties to work together as equal partners by stopping the game of hot potato and by opening up communication lines. It seems clear that the state and counties truly worked together on the realignment solution so let’s hope that approach will prevail here.  

The national trend is certainly toward reducing prison populations in favor of supervision within communities where treatment and counseling lead toward rehabilitation. States just can no longer afford to blindly incarcerate. As the Wall Street Journal reports:

Georgia is the latest example of a Republican-led state drive to replace tough-on-crime dictums of the 1990s with a more forgiving and nuanced set of laws. Leading the charge in states such as Texas, Ohio, Kentucky, South Carolina and South Dakota are GOP lawmakers—and in most cases Republican governors—who once favored stiff prison terms aimed at driving down crime.

Motivations for the push are many. Budget pressures and burgeoning prison costs have spurred new thinking. Some advocates point to data showing that harsh prison sentences often engender more crime. Among the key backers are conservative Christians talking of redemption and libertarians who have come to see the prison system as the embodiment of a heavy-handed state. And crime rates are falling nationally, a trend that has continued in most of the states putting fewer people in jail.

Pew reports that over the past five years rates of imprisonment fell in 29 states. Public opinion has and continues to shift. In fact, some of the strongest calls for change have been coming from the Right on Crime initiative, which boasts high-profile conservative members such as Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich, William Bennett, Ed Meese, and Grover Norquist. The right and the left are both moving toward the middle. Both are recognizing that there are not endless dollars to continue building and stocking new prions, that we need to provide both supervision and treatment in the community and use interventions that will shut down the revolving door of offenders and keep communities safe. 

If we can act responsibility, we can accomplish all of the above and save money in the process.


Christopher Nelson

All stories by: Christopher Nelson