Stanford University studies look at how California's prison realignment is playing out

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The state's prison realignment program shifted thousands of would-be state prisoners to local control. But it didn't set up a mechanism for tracking what happened to the population or the impact on the counties where they ended up.

Now, two papers out of Stanford Law School's Criminal Justice Center look at how realignment is playing out in California counties. 

How realignment is perceived

In the first study, Stanford Law Professor Joan Petersilia spoke with 125 local stakeholders: police chiefs, district attorneys, public defenders, probation officers, judges, and sheriffs. The idea was to get a sense of how realignment is going. It resulted in "a portrait of counties struggling, often heroically, to carry out an initiative that was poorly planned and imposed upon them almost overnight."

Nonetheless, Petersilia found most law enforcement accepted that realignment is "here to stay," and that "the old system was yielding disappointing results." 

Perhaps the most optimistic and supportive group, probation officers, felt realignment: "gave them an opportunity to fully test whether well-tailored rehabilitation services can keep lower-level felony offenders from committing new crimes and returning to prison."

Petersilia also offers a number of recommendations based on the conversations:

  • Create a database of state prisoners released to county probation supervision.
  • Consider an offender's past crimes when determining his or her level of post-prison supervision (parole or probation).
  • Cap county jail sentences at three years, and consider prison time for repeat probation violators (like sex offenders who cut off their GPS monitors). 

Such changes, Petersilia suggests, could help law enforcement deal with the challenges realignment has brought. 

Where the money is going

The second study examines how California counties are spending billions of dollars they've been allocated by the state to implement realignment.

Looking at the county's plans for the first year of realignment, University of Denver Sociology Professor Jeffrey Lin found that counties varied in whether they allocated more of their realignment dollars to law enforcement or treatment and rehabilitation.

Lin found counties that had relatively fewer per capita law enforcement personnel (like Riverside and Kings counties) used realignment dollars to beef up their law enforcement ranks.

Other counties that invested more heavily in law enforcement (like Los Angeles and Kern counties) may have felt compelled to invest in law enforcement because of higher crime rates and politically, their "relatively high preference for prison for drug crimes."

Those investing more in treatment and rehabilitation also shared some characteristics.

A category of counties that included Alameda and Sonoma tended to have high Black unemployment rates and popular county sheriff's. In these counties, Lin hypothesizes: "high confidence in the sheriff’s office may allow key leaders to address those needs in less politically popular ways—i.e., pursuing treatment as a solution to crime problems."

Overall, "Sheriff and Law Enforcement spending is generally a product of local needs (crime conditions and dedication to law enforcement) and preference for punishment."

Whereas, "Programs and Services spending fundamentally revolves around electoral 
confidence in the Sheriff."

Lin adds the caveat that only the first year of planned realignment spending was included in the study. He plans to follow up to see how the trends hold up over time. 

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