California Prison Changes Largely Unnoticed in Gubernatorial Race
Inmates at Chino State Prison in California. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
It's not the focus of this year's campaign for governor, but under Jerry Brown the state’s approach to criminal justice has gone in a dramatically new direction.
Underlying it all: too many inmates and too few cells.
In 2006, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger warned the state Legislature that the prisons were powder kegs.
"Our prisons are in crisis," the governor said. "We have inherited a problem that has been put off year after year after year."
Schwarzenegger did take steps to reduce the inmate population, but not nearly enough to satisfy the federal courts. Finally, in 2011, with the state's back to the wall, the Legislature passed the most fundamental reform of California's criminal justice system in more than a generation.
AB109, known as "realignment," transferred responsibility for tens of thousands of low-level criminals from state prisons to county jails and probation officers.
These perpetrators of non-serious, non-sexual, nonviolent crimes would now become the responsibility of local law enforcement officials, rather than the state.
"Probation [departments] were not ready," says U.C. Berkeley criminologist Barry Krisberg, who for years has advised the Legislature on criminal justice matters.
Krisberg says California adopted realignment so fast that counties struggled to keep their heads above water.
"I mean, if you had done this logically, you would’ve announced to everyone, 'We’re gonna do it.' You probably would have spent a year or so planning it out, training and making it happen," Krisberg says.
"But that’s not how realignment happened. It just happened."
Five months after Brown signed AB109 (and a companion bill, AB117), realignment took effect.
That process -- or lack thereof -- rankles critics of realignment, including Michael Rushford of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento.
"The 425-page bill, it never saw a committee hearing, it was never brought to the floor, it passed both houses and went to the governor's desk without debate, kinda in the backroom somewhere," complains Rushford.
KQED reporter Michael Montgomery visited Fresno in the summer of 2012 for a television story produced for the Center for Investigative Reporting. Montgomery met inmates in the county jail who had earlier served time in state prisons. They said conditions in the county jail were far worse than state prison.
"There's no programs here," one inmate shouted from his cell. "There's no schools, there's no education. There's no jobs. I mean, this yard is once a week. Every Monday for an hour. That's it. No sunlight, no fresh air."
Several said they'd rather go back to state prison than stay in the jail. Conditions were that bad.
In fact, Fresno has one of the oldest county jails in California. Like state prisons, it was packed with inmates when realignment took effect in October 2011.
At the time, Sheriff Margaret Mims called realignment a triple whammy. "We were hit so hard, so fast, with many more inmates," Mims said. "We were all scrambling to figure out how we’re going to deal with it."
A $2 Billion Deal
In the first two years of realignment, the state sent $2 billion to counties. Each could use the money from the new policy however it saw fit.
More conservative counties hired more probation officers and sheriff's deputies. Counties like San Francisco and Alameda put their emphasis on rehabilitation programs and reducing incarceration.
The overarching goal of realignment was to reduce the churn of parole violators in and out of state prisons, and to let counties manage low-level offenders rather than sending them to state prison.
From Brown's perspective, realignment was a huge success. And he said so early last year. "There’s no question that there were big problems in California prisons: overcrowding, health care, lack of mental health care," he told reporters.
After decades of work, the job was now complete. But for counties, the job was just beginning.
"The first burst of the effects of realignment were almost overwhelming," said Mims, sitting in her office this week reflecting back on the first three years of realignment.
"I’ve been involved in law enforcement for 32 years. We have never had a readjustment or realignment, or reorganization, or however you want to phrase it, as big as this."
But Mims is pleased that Fresno is using $80 million from the state to build a brand-new jail. They'll need it. Most county jails were designed to house inmates for relatively short periods of time.
Now one prisoner in Fresno is serving an 18-year sentence. Shortly after realignment began, one offender in Los Angeles was sentenced to nearly 50 years in the county jail.
UC Berkeley's Krisberg acknowledges that's one of the problems the state is going to have to tackle.
"So suddenly you had people getting very long sentences under existing sentencing laws, but now to county jails," Krisberg notes. "And county jails are designed to hold people for a year, not five years."
Let alone 18 or 48. With these longer sentences come higher health care costs for inmates -- a burden shifted from the state to local government.
Liberal counties like San Francisco quickly embraced realignment. Resistance was strongest inland, in places like Kings County, where Sheriff Dave Robinson was an outspoken critic. And now?
"I’m still a 'lock ‘em up and throw away the key' kind of guy for certain things, like the sex offenses, the gang offenses, etc.," said Robinson this week. "But on some of these realigned crimes, I do think we have some opportunities to make a difference in people’s lives and turn them around so they don’t become career criminals. "
Before realignment, state parole agents tracked ex-offenders who left prison. Under realignment, that falls to counties. To make it work, law enforcement agencies have to coordinate with each other and with nonprofits, providing services like substance abuse and job training.
"Historically, we all work really well in silos. You know, the DA does its thing, the public defender too," says Neola Crosby, who oversees re-entry services for the Alameda County Probation Department.
"And this has kind of forced us all to work together more collaboratively, and with our community partners."
Even critics of realignment agree that one indisputable benefit is cooperation and improved coordination by local law enforcement and nonprofit organizations that provide services like job training and substance abuse treatment.
But three years into it, realignment has not solved the state's prison overcrowding problems, as Brown promised it would.
The state inmate population dropped by more than 25,000, but that leaves nearly 3,000 more inmates than the federal courts will allow.
But it hasn't led to the rising crime rates that critics feared either. Property crimes did go up at first, but are back down again. And violent crime is still at historically low levels.
However, that's little consolation to Rushford, of the conservative Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. "It’s gonna be when every neighborhood has a dead body," he warns. "Then all of a sudden it’s gonna become an issue. So, it’s OK to say everything is fine, we can just let that happen. I know what’s going to happen."
So far, it seems that local officials have largely adapted to realignment. And early critics like Mims say the law has been tweaked so rural counties like hers get more state money. Still, she worries that extra money will eventually go away.
"My fear is -- what has happened historically is -- five or 10 years down the road people forget this was a state issue, not a county issue," Mims says. "And then we say, 'OK county, this is your deal, why aren’t you paying for it?' "
As this experiment known as realignment plays out in California's 58 counties, policymakers will be looking to see what works best to reduce incarceration while also maintaining public safety.
Will it reduce recidivism as promised? Will counties be able to afford the rising cost of health care for inmates spending longer sentences in their jails? And will it really allow the state to spend less money on the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation?
It could take as much as a decade to know whether Brown's signature criminal justice initiative succeeds or fails.