California Officials Say Prison Realignment Puts State on ‘Right Track’

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A panel of California officials from across the criminal justice system agreed that the state’s nearly six-year-old “realignment” of inmates has led to a long list of improvements for crime victims and lawbreakers alike.

The officials spoke yesterday at the opening session of the National Forum on Criminal Justice, which is being held this week in Long Beach, Ca. The event is attended mostly by state criminal justice leaders from around the U.S. and is sponsored by the National Criminal Justice Association, the Justice Research and Statistics Association and the IJIS Institute.

It was less clear that the changes, which were led by Gov. Jerry Brown in response to a Supreme Court ruling to cut the state’s prison population, have led to a reduction in crime.

Last summer, the state said that after two years of decline, the number of violent crimes increased by 10 percent the previous year. The FBI’s preliminary crime data for the first half of last year said that reported violent crime increased in two-thirds of California’s largest cities.

Under “realignment,” many prisoners formerly in state custody were shifted to the state’s 58 counties, along with funds to aid in ex-inmate rehabilitation. Also, what are known as the “three nons”–non-violent, non-serious, and non-sexual offenders–are kept in local jails or on probation or in treatment programs instead of going to state prison in the first place.

The state’s prison population totaled about 160,000 when realignment began. It was down to 131,000 last week, but that was up slightly from a year earlier.

Scott Kernan, director of the state’s Corrections and Rehabilitation Department, declared that “we are on the right track,” based both on the record of realignment and of Proposition 57, which was approved by voters last November by a 64 percent to 35 percent margin.

The measure gives prisoners the opportunity to earn credits that can speed their release. That provides “a motivation to do something” useful while they are incarcerated, Kernan aid.

Proposition 57 also allows for earlier release of prisoners serving life terms who have good records behind bars. Kernan said that more than 3,000 lifers have been released in recent years, and their recidivism rate is only one percent.

The significance of California’s realignment was that it has begun to turn around a trend in which “we were spending a great deal of money on incarceration and we weren’t getting good outcomes,” said Linda Penner, chair of the California Board of Community Corrections.

The shifting of funds formerly being spent to keep criminals locked up to an expansion of local services across the justice system is part of several “dramatic changes” in the justice system instituted by Gov. Brown, Penner said.

The improvements have been seen in most corners of the criminal justice system, other panelists reported.

Robin Lipetzky has been chief public defender of Contra Costa County since 2009. When she began in the criminal defense field in the 1990s, she and fellow lawyers believed their jobs consisted only of fighting for their clients and not “fixing their lives.”

In what she calls a “huge change,” the availability of more funds for local inmate rehabilitation has defenders looking for ways to keep their clients from committing more crimes, she said.

Prosecutors have joined in the process, too, said Nancy O’Malley, district attorney in the relatively high-crime area of Alameda County near San Francisco.

Many prosecutors once focused only on sending offenders to prison. Now, it is common to seek ways of “catching people early before they can get too far into the justice system,: she said. This goal is explained more clearly to crime victims, who generally support it, O’Malley said.

One important goal of modern-day prosecutors should be to “explain to people what we’re doing,” O’Malley said.

A somewhat less enthusiastic view of realignment was offered by the law enforcement spokesman on the panel, Sheriff John McMahon of San Bernardino County, a large area that stretches from east of Los Angeles to the Nevada border.

Realignment’s prisoner shift meant that his county’s 5,000-prisoner total rose to 6,000, McMahon said. It became harder to manage the inmate population, which he said had more options for activities while they were in state prisons.

At the same time, the change has made sheriff’s deputies more conscious of their role in rehabilitation, compared with their attitude years past in sending criminals to state prisons and forgetting about them.

Now, his department takes a bigger role in expanded programs for prisoner reentry into society, and the recidivism rate of local ex-inmates is 40 percent and dropping, he said. (Typically, recidivism rates in many areas nationally have been 67 percent or higher.)

All of the speakers agreed that a positive change under realignment was having representatives of all justice system components — law enforcement, prosecutors, public defenders and corrections programs — meet periodically to discuss criminal justice improvements. Other agencies need to be involved, too, especially schools, said prosecutor O’Malley.

The California approach to justice got an endorsement from a non-panel member who spoke, Dionne Wilson of the California-based Alliance for Safety and Justice. Her husband, a police officer in San Leandro, Ca., was shot and killed in 2005 while responding to a disturbance call.

The assailant, who had been on probation for another offense, was convicted. Still, Wilson came to believe that the murderer was “on death row, but I had nothing to show for it.” She has since joined the forces for criminal justice reform, praising the approach of the state’s realignment of “putting the services [for ex-inmates] where they need to be.” She added that, “We aren’t going to incarcerate our way out” of the crime problem.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief The Crime Report.

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