This week in Realignment: May 2, 2013

150 150 Christopher Nelson

The big news in realignment this week happened late Thursday night as the stand-off between Gov. Jerry Brown and the courts came to an end (at least for now). His administration filed a plan to realign another 10,000 inmates needed to comply with the Supreme Court’s original mandate to reduce California’s state prison population from twice its intended capacity.

The filing itself falls about 9,000 inmates short of the exact number the Supreme Court ordered in 2009 in its initial ruling. The state was to reduce to 137.5 percent of their current prison capacity. It’s the administration’s hope that the filing will at least avoid a charge of contempt, which was being threatened.

Brown’s administration contends that the Court is too focused on a specific percentage,  that the administration believes is arbitrary at best, instead of looking at the vast improvements made to conditions within state prisons, particularly to health care. In the sense that realignment isn’t only about reducing prison population, we agree.

“Clearly the reduction in prison population is one measure of success, but for the long term it is about whether this reduction can be maintained, so we must ask if we are working to also reduce recidivism,” said Sharon Aungst, Director of the Partnership.

The most significant takeaway from the plan filed is that no additional burden is likely to be placed on the already-taxed counties, if the administration has anything to say about it. Many of the same conditions tied to overcrowding that existed in state prisons are beginning to replicate themselves within county jails with the influx of additional offenders since October of 2011.

“The administration did the right thing by not wanting to put more responsibility on counties.  It is important for counties to have the space to continue the work they have been doing to make realignment work for them.  A change right now could significantly impact counties’ efforts and hamper realignment’s success.” Aungst said.

One way the state can easily remedy the situation is to pony up for more beds. A new intermediate level medical and mental health facility designed for inmates with the most serious needs will start admitting patients this summer and will add 1722 beds to the system by December 2013.  This combined with putting higher risk inmates in supervised fire camps and not bringing inmates back from out of state facilities will help meet the goal. 

 Another facet to the plan is early release for medically frail inmates and lifers who have served large chunks of their sentence and pose little threat to recidivate (some studies show that less than one percent of long-term lifers do so).  But it comes back to the question of whether or not realignment works.  If it doesn’t work then we have not gained much as we will have created a system in counties that repeats the mistakes the state has made. 

But right now we have no way to determine if realignment is working or will work because no money was put into research and the availability of data to researchers and other organizations who want to evaluate realignment.

Joan Petersilia just published a paper called “Looking Past The Hype: 10 Questions Everyone Should Ask About California’s Prison Realignment”.  She says:

This is the biggest penal experiment in modern history, yet no comprehensive evaluation was funded to evaluate its impact. Regardless of whether you support or oppose realignment, most everyone is baffled by the fact that although the counties received funding to cover the cost of supervising realigned felons, the state did not establish any statewide standards, nor provide any funding, for objectively evaluating county practices.

The paper provides:

a “framework for a comprehensive evaluation by raising 10 essential questions: (1) Have prison populations been reduced and care sufficiently improved to bring prison medical care up to a Constitutional standard? (2) What is the impact on victim rights and safety? (3) Will more offenders participate in treatment programs, and will recidivism be reduced? (4) Will there be equitable sentencing and treatment across counties? (5) What is the impact on jail crowding, conditions, and litigation? (6) What is the impact on police, prosecution, defense, and judges? (7) What is the impact on probation and parole? (8) What is the impact on crime rates and community life? (9) How much will realignment cost? Who pays? (10) Have we increased the number of people under criminal justice supervision?

These are critical questions yet we have no means to answer most of them from a statewide perspective. Thankfully we have very dedicated and excellent researchers in California who have cobbled together some university and grant funds in an attempt to get some answers for a sampling of counties.

Without those efforts, we would be completely in the dark.


Christopher Nelson

All stories by: Christopher Nelson