California attempts to fix broken prison system with ‘realignment’

California has launched a massive “realignment” plan to overhaul and reform the state’s notoriously dysfunctional prison system. 

Overcrowding at Mule Creek State Prison. PHOTO SOURCE: California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation

After decades of battling lawsuits and court appeals, California was forced to finally address the severe overcrowding in its state prisons after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the release of 10,000 inmates by Nov. 28, 2011 and another 30,000 inmates by May 2013.

Despite complaints by state officials and lawmakers, the Supreme Court’s ruling presented a rare opportunity to fix a broken prison system that is costing the state billions annually while perpetuating a high recidivism rate. In 2010, 7 out of 10 parolees returned to state prison after their release compared to just 3 out of 10 in 1981. This year, California is expected to spend $10.1 billion on corrections, which takes up nearly 12% of the 2011-2012 state budget. The bottom line is that California has been spending more and more tax dollars on a broken prison system that has been producing worse and worse results for years.

The high recidivism rate has contributed to the chronic overcrowding in California’s prisons and has resulted in repeated failures to “meet the prisoners’ basic health needs,” which the Supreme Court has ruled to be a violation of the prisoners’ “minimum constitutional requirements.”

“We can’t overturn the Supreme Court’s decision, but we can work together to fix our broken system and protect public safety,” said Gov. Jerry Brown. “Realignment, I think, is the most viable way to comply with the court’s order. It ensures that the most dangerous offenders serves their full sentences in state prison.”

Beginning Oct. 1, California’s public safety realignment plan would reform the state’s prison system by changing the focus from incarceration to rehabilitation measures that reduce recidivism and shifting more responsibilities from the state to local governments.

Under the realignment plan, the state will remain responsible for the incarceration and parole of serious, violent, and sex offenders. Criminals convicted of low-level crimes after Oct. 1, 2011 will serve their terms in county jails instead of state prisons, and low-level offenders who have completed their sentences in state prisons will have their paroles supervised by county probation departments. The assumption is that counties would be more effective at ensuring parolees receive the mental health services, drug counseling, job assistance, and other social services that would give them a better chance at re-integrating in their communities, which would (in theory) reduce the rate of recidivism.

“Given the proper resources, local jurisdictions are in a better position to effectively supervise these felons and have a better understanding of available local resources to keep them from re-offending,” said Scott Seaman, Los Gatos Police Chief and 1st Vice President of the California Police Chiefs Association.”There will be flexibility of response that is simply not available under the current system.”

California counties will receive about $400 millions to pay for the realignment this year, and state funding is expected to reach $850 million next year and another $1 billion the following year, said Matthew Cate, Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Brown has pledged “maximum state support” to local officials carrying out the realignment mandates, including a placing a ballot measure in 2012 that would amend the state constitution to guarantee funding for realignment.

“If local government is going to be asked to do this work, which we are, we need the tools to get it done. In this case, that does mean a constitutional guarantee. It means guaranteeing us the money,” said Mike McGowan, Yolo County Supervisor and 1st Vice President of the California State Association of Counties. “This is a superior approach than relying on the state legislature as we’ve had to do year after year, relying on them to get this right to get their act together.”


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