California’s plan to “realign” criminal justice

California's prisons are some of the most crowded
California's prisons are some of the most crowded
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California’s prison system holds 162,000 inmates. By the end of June the United States Supreme Court could uphold an order to cut that number by nearly 40,000.

The justices are hearing a California appeal of a lower court order to end prison overcrowding. If the state loses the appeal, no one's sure what prison officials will do, but the solution might be Gov. Jerry Brown’s recently enacted “realignment plan” (AB109) to shift thousands of inmates from state prisons to county jails.

Brown’s “realignment” plan shifts non-violent, low-level offenders from state prison to the county supervision. They’d serve time in local jails, or on house arrest, or in community service or rehab programs. Counties would also house all but a few juvenile offenders. And counties would supervise parolees who’d served time in state prison for non-violent, low-level offenses.

But Secretary of Corrections Matthew Cate emphasizes that under “realignment,” no one will get out of prison early.

“Everybody who’s in prison now stays in prison” says Cate. “Everybody who’s on state parole now stays on state parole. This is all, 'What does it look like in the future?'”

In the future the caseloads of state parole officers would be reduced by tens of thousands of ex-convicts. Counties would supervise them. State parole officers would focus on high-risk ex-cons, including sex offenders and violent criminals. And only high-risk, ex-cons would be sent back to state prison for parole violations, like other states do it.

Cate says while state parole officers watch the high-risk offenders, the counties will focus on getting low-risk offenders the help they need to stay out of trouble.

“Part of this investment will be to provide county probation and county sheriffs with a big chunk of money to get these offenders into programs that have been working locally to try to shrink the size of the pie. We just can’t afford to continue to have so many offenders fail.”

Many local law enforcement officials agree with “realignment” in principle.

Irvine Police Chief Dave Maggard, President of the California Police Chiefs Association says “chiefs throughout California believe that if done with care and if we have sufficient funding that realignment has the potential to really result in better public safety outcomes that than we currently have.”

The governor promised to provide $1.1 billion dollars a year to counties to cover public safety “realignment.” He’s still trying to convince a few Republican lawmakers to support a five-year tax extension so he can pay for that promise.

Maggard says if lawmakers approve funding, he wants some of those dollars to beef up local police forces.

“We do know that there’s going to be more people out there that we’re going to have to be engaged with. There’s going to be some offenses that we’re going to wanna make sure that we’re going to be monitoring closely.”

The California District Attorneys Association pushed to get funding to pay for prosecuting more crimes. But spokesman Scott Thorpe says a bigger worry is whether “realignment” would crowd county jails.

“If you have a certain jail capacity and you have more people coming to local jails that means certain people who would otherwise be in a local jail won’t be there. Those people will be out on the street. Many of those people will most likely commit more crimes.”

Thorpe says many of California’s county jails are at capacity.

“There are some counties who literally don’t have the beds, so they don’t have the physical facilities and the realignment doesn’t provide enough money to build jails quick enough. There are other jails that, they have the beds but they don’t have the funding for the personnel so they can’t put people in some of those beds.”

The realignment plan includes money to reopen 10,000 jail beds, expand existing jails or build new ones.

Cate says state prisons will also offer to contract with counties to house some low-level offenders. Private prisons in California also have room.

Cate says the most immediate change will involve county probation departments; they’ll take over the job of monitoring low-level, non-violent parolees released from state prisons in July. Cate expects counties to monitor 35,000 parolees within two years.