Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Prison realignment: Counties, local law enforcement unlikely to see any major fix

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California’s Realignment law  was the Brown Administration’s solution to reduce overcrowding in state prisons. The law (AB109) sends lower-level felons to serve sentences in county jails. But the state hasn’t reduced the prison population enough to satisfy a federal court, and 9,600 more inmates must be released by year’s end.

That means dozens of this year's bills seeking to mitigate the effects of realignment on public safety are dead in the water.

Nick Warner, the Legislative Director for the California State Sheriffs' Association, said it's no secret that tens of thousand of felons California lawmakers shifted to the counties under realignment turned out to be more dangerous and in need of more health care and rehabilitation than most counties can provide.

"The higher level offenders we have under county supervision and in county jails is indisputably and, I think, globally recognized as problematic," Warner said.

But, Warner said, the dozens of bills in the legislature this year that would have returned some of the more dangerous felons to state prisons are going nowhere fast.

"We are talking to people in the Governor’s office and in the legislature – and regardless as to whether they agree with us or not, they don’t feel that they can increase the state prison population in any way," Warner said.

A package of 13 bills Republicans introduced all died in committee.

Assemblywoman Marie Waldron (R-San Diego) said her party wanted to start a conversation about the problems realignment has caused.

"We basically took an overcrowded and unhealthy situation in the prisons and just moved that into county jails who are not set up for it at all," Waldron said.

Waldron authored AB1106 to shield county jails from lawsuits over lack of sufficient medical and mental health care. Lawyers for inmates have already sued Riverside County for that.

Other Republican measures would have reinstated state prison sentences for certain types of crimes and for felons who violate parole.

"Sex offenders or violent felons who violate their parole should be sent back to state prison, not to a crowded jail where they’ll be released within days if not hours," said Waldron.

Bills from Democrats have fared better in the legislature, but it's clear the governor won't sign any that increase the prison population. Senator Ted Lieu has had to scale back his bill to punish paroled sex offenders who cut off their GPS bracelets. The Torrance Democrat's SB57 made that crime a felony with a prison sentence. He just replaced that with mandatory county jail time.

Nick Warner with the California State Sheriffs' Association expressed frustration with the limited options.

"We agree you can’t increase the current population unless you increase the available number of beds — and then you can," Warner said.  "There’s a difference between 'you can’t' and 'you won’t.' Some of these solutions require money."

Warner said the Brown Administration is open to swapping state prisoners with less than six months to serve for county jail felons with long sentences.  But Warner believes a better solution would be to lower the cost for counties to send felons to the state’s fire camps — or for the state to reopen some of the shuttered community correctional facilities.

Brown’s press secretary declined to comment on what types of  realignment fixes the Governor supports.

Any agreement will likely end up in a budget trailer bill later this summer.

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