It's been said you can judge the quality of a civilization by the way it treats its prisoners. If that's true, California in 2011 was in poor condition, at least according to the Supreme Court.
The justices found that overcrowding was so bad — 150 percent to 180 percent capacity — it was deemed cruel and unusual punishment and in violation of the Constitution. They swiftly ordered the state to cut its prison population by 33,000 over the next two years (a three-judge panel extended that deadline last month).
California is calling their dramatic prison-reduction plan "realignment," and it is part of a nationwide trend to rework the U.S. prison system.
Stopping the revolving door
California's prison realignment process is shifting responsibility for offenders and their rehabilitation to local communities.
This means that if a prisoner is released from a state prison, they are then handed over to local authorities. In California's case, that means county probation.
"The concept of realignment was that if you emptied the prisons, you'd have more state resources [and] that the state could do more in its own prisons," says Paige St. John, who covers prisons for the Los Angeles Times.
Now, offenders who violate the terms of their release don't go back to state prison. Instead, they're left in the hands of local probation officers and local jails.
"The biggest reduction in the prison population was supposed to come from stopping this revolving door of parole violators returning to prison," St. John tells NPR's Arun Rath.
It's had some unintended consequences. Previously, local probation officers were dealing with minor, low-level offenders. St. John says that now they're seeing some "dramatic blurring" of responsibilities.
"Some counties have morphed their probation departments into mini-parole agencies," she says, "arming people with guns, using electronic monitoring and other techniques much more often in tracking people much more intensively."
Linda Penner, the executive officer of California's Board of State and Community Corrections, says this kind of shift is an enormous undertaking. She's part of the team that orchestrated realignment, and a former chief of probation herself. She says this approach works because these populations are well-known to the local authorities now responsible for them.
"I think the locals are able and ready," Penner says. "These offenders came from these counties, and so it is not an unknown population to the agencies that are servicing them locally."
Meanwhile, local communities are in charge of their own approach to crime. St. John says it allows counties to remain in their "comfort zone."
"If they are tough on crime, they can remain tough on crime — they'll just have to foot the bill for it. If they are very liberal in their approach and want to put their money into rehabilitation instead, then they're free to do that too," she says.
But since local ways of doing things can vary, this means some inconsistency in how the law is enforced across the state. Something that might get 24 hours in jail in one community, for instance, might lead to 60 days in another.
Regardless of the sentences, after serving time, ex-offenders will likely need support reintegrating into their communities.
"What I think is most important is that we have the services, regardless of who's providing them," says Margarita Perez, the deputy probation officer for Los Angeles County.
In Whittier, Calif., officer Beatrice Llamas has been with the Department of Probation for 25 years. She now works in a specific program dedicated to reintegrating the state's realignment offenders.
On a recent day, she visited one of her parolees, Eric (he asked NPR not use his last name). Llamas talks with Eric, a heavy-set guy with a boyish face, and asks him basic questions about how he is doing.
In the couple of months she's been working with him, she's learned all about his life. Eric's girlfriend is expecting their first child, and that's been a powerful motive for him to make changes in his behavior.
"So that baby on the way makes a difference for him," Llamas says. "In someone else's case it may be something else; it may be a job that they barely obtained that they want to keep that; it may be school they just started. It works to all our benefits to talk to them and see what's going on with them."
There's a tendency to define this kind of work as law enforcement, and there are good reasons Llamas wears a bulletproof vest and carries pepper spray. But her day-to-day duties look a lot more like social work; getting involved with her cases to help them with finding jobs, housing and leading a clean life.
But being so involved in the lives of individual offenders is also very time-consuming, and in big counties like Los Angeles, it also means a lot of taxed resources.
If Eric were to get into trouble again, he would be referred to a county jail, where a local sheriff would decide whether he stays in jail or is released. Jails have to become more like prisons now, says St. John of the Times. She says jails have people now for decades instead of six months.
"It's resulted in a kind of sentencing reform the state didn't intend, where punishment may be meted out by a judge, but in the end is actually delivered by the sheriff, who determines whether he has room in his jail or not," she says.
Even so, there's still not enough space to hold all the offenders in local jails. Los Angeles County now lets out people who have served only part of their sentence. And even with shifting some responsibility to local communities, the state is once again having problems with the population.
"Ironically, the prison population is growing again," St. John says. "The reduction of about 35,000 inmates turned out to be temporary. About a two-year reprieve is about what it bought California and not much more."
Investing in alternatives
Part of the problem is that California is still playing catch-up after years in which rates of incarceration skyrocketed.
Across the country, the percentage of Americans who are locked up increased dramatically over the second half of the 20th century. It peaked in 2008, when 1 in 100 adult Americans were actually behind bars.
Adam Gelb, the director of the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts, says there are two factors that determine the size and cost of a prison system: how many people go in and how long they stay. Through the 1970s and '80s in particular, he says, laws were passed, enacted and enforced that sent more people to prison for offenses that previously would not have sent them to prison.
"What states are saying across the board now is that there are much more effective and less expensive ways to deal with these lower-level offenders," Gelb says.
In Texas, for instance, Gelb says the state invested into expanding treatment programs, probation programs, drug courts and other alternatives for lower-level, nonviolent offenders.
"Policy makers in the states are seeing research about risk assessment, about new technologies like GPS monitoring and drug courts and other strategies that can reduce recidivism and do it at a fraction of the cost of a prison cell," Gelb says.
Whether it's California or Texas, a consensus appears to be forming that an integrated approach — with more active rehabilitation programs and community involvement — is the right way forward in dealing with the United State's huge prisoner population.