This week in Realignment: September 13, 2013

150 150 Christopher Nelson

In three weeks, it has gone from head-butting to hand-shaking over exactly how to go about reducing California’s state prison population by another 8,500 inmates. The stand-off between Gov. Jerry Brown and Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg came to a close with a compromise

Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders announced Monday a deal to seek more time to cut California’s prison population by expanding rehabilitation programs aimed at reducing the number of former inmates committing new crimes.

However, the state is prepared to spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year to house inmates in private prisons and other facilities if the request for an extension is rejected by a panel of three federal judges.

Basically the state is asking for more time, which if they get, will allow them to think longer term and embrace the goals found in Sen. Steinberg’s plan of emphasizing treatment, rehabilitation and education as a means to gradually reduce the prison population and keep it down.

“It’s better than the “create more beds” only option that was proposed by the administration.” said Sharon Aungst, Director of CA Fwd’s Partnership for Community Excellence. 

“Including an independent non-partisan sentencing commission, or anything resembling it, is critical as it takes a lot of time to collect and analyze data in order to make the right changes. If we’re gonna fix the front door and stem the tide, we have to do something about sentencing,” she said.

However, if the Dec. 31 deadline sticks, then it reverts back to Gov. Brown’s original proposal and $315 million of our surplus reserve immediately gets put toward shifting the bulk of that 8,500 to privately owned facilities to be manned by state employees.

This solution that is essentially both proposals in one bill (SB 105) as a Plan A and Plan B was signed Thursday by Gov. Brown. Based on the level of back and forth over many years between California and the Court and how staunch the Court has been in sticking to its guns, the likelihood for an extension is slim.

So what do we know at this point. CSAC came out in favor of the compromise, calling it “good for counties, good for California.” The LAO begs to differ, offering criticism of each individual plan that now comprise the hybrid legislation that was signed.

It’s unclear what the plan calls for if the court allows a delay, however. Up to $75 million of savings would go into a new Recidivism Reduction fund, which would be appropriated by the Legislature for services and interventions. What they will do to enhance SB 678 or what the long term solutions might be are not present, though. 

We do know that education, like treatment for those with mental illness and rehabilitation for those with substance use disorders, is a proven method for keeping those who offend from re-offending, in California and nationally.

And we know that counties continue to experiment with AB 109 funding to keep their newly expanded jail populations down, often finding success. All of this begs the question about “what if the focus from the start had been on alternatives for complying with the order versus fighting the decision (and using the lawyer’s fees to pay for the alternatives developed)?  Would we be in a better place now?   

But perhaps most telling is a Los Angeles Times live chat with their reporter covering prison realignment and these most recent developments. While it’s easy to get mired in the granular aspects of the plan for those who live and breathe this type of stuff, the average California tends to see things in black and white.

For example, the first two questions, paraphrased, were “Can we build more prisons in the desert?” and “Is Sacramento really going to sacrifice education our kids for prisons?” Immediately the dichotomy is presented. Further questions ask if it will take a state of emergency for Gov. Brown to send prisoners out of state, if Gov. Brown is willing to “reinvent” or rethink rehabilitation, and if rehabilitation receives more focus, how can we ensure that the drug portion of Medi-Cal is trustworthy given a recent CNN exposé?

For every well-informed question, there are six or seven that are posed based on a lack of what would be considered very basic information for those knee-deep in public safety as a career. The first step toward selling the public might be educating them further.  


Christopher Nelson

All stories by: Christopher Nelson