California prosecutors, public defenders grapple with 'realignment'

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26171 full

This is the first week for “realignment” in California’s criminal justice system. Realignment sends fewer criminals to state prison. It’s an effort to save the state money by stopping the spinning door that has ex-cons end up back in prison again and again. Realignment is also aimed at cutting the prison population to meet a federal court order.

Whatever the motivation, it’s a big change for prosecutors and public defenders.

Inside an Alameda County courtroom, Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson is about to sentence a carjacker.

The victim is undergoing chemotherapy and couldn’t make it to the courtroom, so Judge Jacobson reads her letter. "You held me at gunpoint, stole my car and all my belongings and then wrecked my car. To this day..."

The man in the red jail coveralls listens, but shows no emotion."On violation of penal code section 215, carjacking, I’m going to sentence you to the mid-term of five years in state prison," Jacobson says.

The carjacker was out on parole when he stole the car. He joined the 70 percent of convicts that commit new crimes within three years of leaving prison.

Gov. Jerry Brown thinks counties can change that if they keep their low-level felons instead of sending them to state prison. That’s what he calls “realignment.”

Nancy O’Malley says it works in Alameda County. She’s the district attorney there, and she says less than a third of felons on probation in her county commit new crimes.

"So we’re doing something right," O'Malley says. "So what I think is the rest of the state is adopting our philosophy of keeping them local and trying to help them figure out how to turn their lives around. Give them as many opportunities as we can. And for those that choose not to or don’t for whatever reason, attach the punishment to it."

Under California’s new law counties keep nonviolent, non-sexual and non-serious felons. Steal a car, swipe something from a store, sell drugs — you get time in county jail.

Public defender Brendon Woods say it’s better than state prison. "Prison is no joke. Prison is tough. You learn how to survive in a different way in prison. I’ve heard people describe it as a war zone."

Woods' office looks out onto the Alameda County courthouse blocks away. He says a lot of his clients are kids that need a push in the right direction.

"You’ve got some young kid who’s been selling drugs," Woods says. "He’s got one foot in the community where he’s trying to do the right thing, and one foot in the criminal element. You send that kid to prison, he’s going to come out a lot worse. He’s going to come out with two feet in the criminal element. Realignment will try to stop that and put that person on the right path."

Riverside County Public Defender Christine Voss says her office used to have a hard time getting prosecutors to consider alternative sanctions, "And we tried an enormous number of cases as a result because we were not able to settle them."

Riverside County has sent a high percentage of its low-level felons to state prison compared to other counties. Last year, they sent up 4,000 felons.

"People had previously thought, ‘OK, we’ve given up on this person. They’re going to state prison. We’re now done with them,’" Voss says. "And our lawyers will not be in that situation anymore. They’re going to stay local and they’re going to have what we’re calling ‘split sentences,’ where people go to county jail for a period of time and are released on supervision after that. And they may have terms and conditions that we may be involved in influencing."

But Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach says in his county, there’s no room in the jail. "There’s a good possibility the court will sentence someone for two or three years; they’re going to be required to serve that sentence locally; the jail has no custody; so the next day, they’re released on ankle bracelet and go back home."

“Ankle bracelets” means electronic GPS trackers. Zellerbach says county sheriffs will use a lot of them because they’ll have to release a lot of people from jail that usually wouldn’t get out right away — like arrestees waiting for trial.

"Let’s say someone was a victim of a crime and they had at least hoped and expected that person to be locked up and held in custody until the trial," Zllerbach says. "Maybe they’ll be out the next day in their neighborhood."

Zellerbach also worries that prosecutors won’t be able to snag serious criminals on parole violations anymore. Before, a parole violation would get a felon six months in state prison; now, it’s a probation violation that comes with only 90 days in county jail.

But Riverside County’s Paul Zellerbach and other district attorneys have a plan: they say they’ll file more new charges to get the more dangerous probationers off the streets.

Infographic by KPCC's Lily Mihalik.

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