October of this year marks the two-year anniversary of the introduction of California's historic corrections reform known as public safety realignment.
Realignment shifted significant corrections oversight and funding from the state to its counties—including authority over most non-serious, non-violent, and non-sexual offenders. Motivated in part by rulings from the federal courts to reduce prison overcrowding, this is the biggest shift in California corrections policy in decades.
It affects tens of thousands of prisoners and the public safety of all Californians.
The promise of realignment was that it would relieve pressure on the state prison system and produce better results by placing authority for incarcerating and supervising offenders closer to home. Eighteen months on, both the intended and unintended consequences are coming into focus.
Realignment has successfully shrunk the “incarceration footprint” of the state. The prison population has dropped 17 percent from 144,000 on the eve of realignment to 119,000 today. However, this decline will not be sufficient to satisfy the federal courts, falling roughly 9,600 inmates short of the reduction target.
While the state is appealing the court order to release more inmates, corrections officials are continuing to sort through alternative methods to comply with the cap, such as early release of aged and infirm inmates, a slowdown in the return of inmates housed in private prisons out of state, and expansion of “good time” credits.
Growth in Jail Populations
As expected, jail populations have grown as the prison population has plummeted, as almost all non-serious, non-violent, and non-sexual offenders—along with parole violators—now serve time in county facilities.
But the decline in the prison population has been much greater than the increase in county jails. For every three fewer inmates in prison there has been an increase of only one in jail, according to Magnus Loftstrom and Steven Raphael in Impact of Realignment on County Jail Populations. In addition, the amount of time that can be served in a parole revocation has been reduced to six months.
The bottom line: more offenders have more time on the street than was the case before realignment.
With fewer offenders behind bars, realignment critics have forecast increases in crime. Here the picture is less clear.
Increase in Property Offenses
The FBI recently released data that show a nationwide increase in property offenses in large cities in the first half of 2012. Some portion of these increases began before realignment took effect— and because they took place in other states as well, parsing the impact of realignment is challenging.
However, the California Department of Justice is scheduled to release crime data for all California counties through 2012 in the next two months, which will allow researchers to more effectively tie changing crime patterns to realignment. If it turns out crime is up, and the increase can be tied to realignment, a political debate about “reforming the reform” is likely to ensue.
Realignment was expected to achieve better results because offenders would be supervised in the community. A report recently released by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation suggests recidivism patterns are largely unchanged.
The data show that offenders released after realignment have roughly the same high rate of recidivism as those released before. Sixty percent are rearrested within one year of release. This is not the last word on recidivism, however, as the data only cover offenders released from prison and not those released from county jails who would have previously done time in prison.
What is clear is that violations of parole are no longer a large driver of the prison population.
Counties did not undertake realignment on equal footing. Prior to realignment, some counties relied heavily on the state prison system to handle felony offenders while others tended to use local jails and alternative sanctions.
Some had well-developed probation and social services systems; others did not. Realignment gave counties complete authority to determine how they would deal with the new influx of offenders.
As a result, realignment is being implemented in very different ways. Many officials throughout the state are now clamoring for a more coordinated approach, with common measures of performance and more resources to support the staff, physical plant, and services needed to achieve better results than the state did.
Making the Change Visible
While the story of realignment continues to unfold, a particular challenge is simply the invisibility of what is happening in communities.
Realignment highlights the lack of systematically collected data that would allow the state to gauge the success of the counties' different approaches and identify practices that reduce recidivism.
After neglecting to include funds for data collection, research and evaluation in the original realignment legislation, many policymakers in Sacramento—joined by a chorus of counties and other groups throughout the state—are beginning to push for data that can provide an assessment of realignment and guide the state in building safer communities and better systems for aiding reentering offenders.
Ryken Grattet, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. His research and writing focuses on California corrections law and policy. He welcomes readers' comments.