What’s the real story on California Realignment?

150 150 Ed Coghlan

The more doors we open for low-level offenders, the more these cell doors stay open (photo: Auntie P/Flickr)

Recently, there has been a flurry of media activity aimed at assessing whether California Realignment, an ambitious effort to reduce state prison overcrowding while giving local government more authority for the retention and monitoring of lower level offenders, is making any real progress. 

Some of the articles have been critical of the effort, some have been more positive.

“Honestly, there just hasn’t been enough accurate information distributed about what is really happening in the counties,” said Sharon Aungst, director of California Forward’s Partnership for Community Excellence (PCE), which is supporting counties in implementing California Realignment.

The PCE held its quarterly meeting in Sacramento recently with over 40 participants from across the state, including representatives of the judiciary, county probation community-based organizations, advocacy groups, reentry councils, technical assistance providers, state government, and academia.

“Many of the jurisdictions are still trying to figure out and how they can work together in a systemic way. Clearly there are power struggles in some counties that result in winners and losers, with the county system and its residents losing the most,” Aungst said.

“But there are many counties that seem to have figured out how to work together to get good results at least in some areas. We are seeing this over and over again, yet these stories are buried on page ten while the negative stories are page one.” she added.

During the first six months of realignment, about 72 percent of the nearly 15,000 statewide offenders sent to county instead of the state facilities were given straight jail time, according to a recent report by the Chief Probation Officers of California.

That happens despite the fact that realignment allows judges to use “split sentences” for low-level felons so that offenders are incarcerated but then released to supervision via probation. The period of community supervision is key to keeping these offenders from making their way back into legal system because of treatment they receive toward building prosocial behaviors while being guided and held accountable by a probation officer.

“We can’t change that person’s behavior who is walking out of jail without having some sort of jurisdiction putting together plans to help them,” said Karen Pank, executive director of the Chief Probation Officers of California.

CPOC is encouraging judges to include probation supervision as part of the sentence for low-level offenders.  That way, it believes, they’re likely to get treatment as well as follow-up supervision once they’re on their own.

Advocates for successful California realignment think it will happen on a county by county basis.  Success is contingent on a number of factors that include having the right culture and capacity to do business differently and sticking to the good governance principles of inclusive planning, use of programs and practices shown to work, measuring results, and using data to improve those results.

“Criminal justice is a system and success is very dependent upon the extent to which the multiple entities work together to make realignment successful.”  said Aungst. “The Partnership and California Forward are focused on assisting counties in building the culture and capacity that will help them be successful.

Judges, sheriffs, probation and police officers, prosecutors, public defenders, and service providers will all have to work together to solve this problem that is years in the making. As a result, there is no quick-fix.

“That’s why it’s important to be patient and give counties time to demonstrate results.” said Aungst.  

“At this early point, we should be looking at how counties are building capacity, making smart decisions, and measuring results. Building a successful new system is like building a new business, it takes capacity for making smart decisions and time to learn so they can improve their results.”


Ed Coghlan

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