Transcript: PPIC fellow Magnus Lofstrom’s remarks on the effects of public safety realignment in California – June 28, 2013

Partial transcript of remarks by Magnus Lofstrom, Research Fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, on the effects of the public safety Realignment in California. The PPIC panel was held on June 28, 2013:

…I want to start off by giving you a very quick overview of the Realignment and share with you some of our observations and findings in the research that we’ve done recently…

It is not an over-statement by saying that Realignment is a major corrections reform, and in fact I think many people will argue that this is one of the most important corrections reforms that the state has seen in decades.

It was prompted by a federal court order to reduce prison overcrowding by – at the time – of about 35,000. The state appealed this but it was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2011.

And really, what the state’s solution to this problem was rather than relying on early releases of prisoners, the solution is really to shift responsibility as well as funding from this state to the counties and, in particular, how we handle lower-level felons. These are felons that are described as non-violent, non-sexual, and non-serious.

And the way we did this is – I’m just going to be able to show you…some of the main features of this particular reform.

One important one was that lower-level felons are now going to county jails instead of our state prisons. So that’s obviously one important way that this is going to relieve the pressures from our state prison system.

Another important feature of the reform was the technical parole violators who in the past would have been sent back to our state prisons are now going to receive their sanctions at the counties. So this is another important group and that was a substantial proportion of the prison population…

Another key component here is how we’re handling the supervision of released offenders. And released offenders now – again, we’re talking about the lower-level felons – instead of being handled and supervised by state parole, they’re now being supervised by county probations.

The reform – it was proposed and implemented very quickly. It went proposal to implementation in just about 8 or 9 months. Proposal in January 2011, implementation as of October 1st of that same year.

It quickly drew down the prison population. In just the first year, it drew it down by 27,000, which represents about 17% of the state prison population. So again, this is – we’re talking about a major reform.

So with that in mind and the structure of this legislation, it is not surprising to see that the county jails are receiving a lot of new customers. We see an increase in the county jail population since Realignment in that first year, which brings us up to the most recent data point we have at the moment. It increased by about 9,000, which is an increase of the average daily jail population of about 9%.

Substantial increase, quick increase. We’re still actually at the low. Our historical high were around 84,000. Now, we’re in the low 80’s and the high of 84,000 was really in 2007.

The increase – again, not surprisingly – has also presented some challenges for the county jails. And this is a system that was already capacity-challenged at the time of Realignment.

Just to give you some examples and indications of this, we have 18 counties are now faced court-ordered population caps – so how many inmates they can house in their facilities.

We have 16 counties operating facilities above their rated capacities and that’s up from 11 in just one year. If we look at this from a system-wide perspective state-wide, we see that in every month since February of 2012 that our jails have been operating above 100% of their rated capacity.

These challenges are also noticeable in the data when we look at capacity constraint releases. These are releases that sheriffs are reporting are due to limited housing capacity. And we see that in the most recent…that we have data for, we see that 35 counties reported releasing inmates due to capacity constraints, and that’s up from 27 in the previous year.

Another indication of the challenges that the jails are facing is they’re now dealing with a population of inmates that are serving much longer sentences than they did prior to Realignment. The max prior to Realignment was one year. Now there is more than 1,100 inmates who are serving sentences of five years or more.

There are concerns about the conditions in jail as well, and this is something that we see by just looking at some lawsuits or some threats of lawsuits. Four counties have actually been issued or threatened with a lawsuit since Realignment.

So if we then take a step back and we take a look at what the responses of the county levels are with respect to Realignment, and particularly what I’m doing here is I’m really going to give you some brief points and some of the key findings from one of the reports that’s in your packet that was co-authored with Steve Raphael, who’s here who’s at U.C. Berkeley, who’s a professor there.

What we do see is – as expected – total incarceration increase in the state. We do not have a 1 to 1 relationship as the data I already showed you kind of hints that. Instead, what we see is that county jail population increased by about 1 for every 3 fewer felons going to our state prisons.

Also, one of the effects of Realignment is that our county incarceration rates are now more equal across counties. There are huge disparities still in terms of our prison and total incarceration rate but Realignment reduced those differences.

As with so many of the other responses to Realignment, as we expected, the intent of this legislation was for counties to take the approaches they deem best. And when we look at the jails and the incarceration response, we see these two different dramatically across the counties. And in trying to explain what some of those factors are, the ones that stand out the most are the ones that’s really hinting at capacity constraints.

So here are just a couple of the observations that suggest that.

If we look at these capacity constraint releases – something that took place right before Realignment – that has certainly increased. The data quite strongly show this. We see that these take place primarily in the counties that are facing court-ordered caps and it’s particularly sentenced inmates that are released early in these counties that are taking place much more frequently now as a result of Realignment.

We do see that in this environment, though capacity challenges, some counties are using their – some of their discretions and tools that they’ve been handed, such as the new sentencing tool that’s called split sentencing.

Split sentencing allows the counties and a judge to divide the term of the sentence into a portion that’s being served in the county jail and another portion that’s then going to be under supervision of county probation.

And we do see that in some of the capacity constrained counties that this is something that’s used. But at the same time, we see other capacity constrained counties that are not using this. This is something that I think it’s important for us to try to start to understand why that is. It is a tool that could be used to relieve some of the pressures that county jails are facing.

So we should also take a look and see what the situation will look like down the road. I’m pointing out that right now there’s some serious capacity challenges.

But the state has provided funding for jail expansions, both through AB 900 as well as SB 1022. And with these additional expansions that will be built in the coming years, that will certainly alleviate the pressures of the jails to some extent.

Not only will it do that, but it will also provide these upgraded facilities and some infrastructure that hopefully will lend itself better to program and new services and hence better outcomes.

It wasn’t just the jails that have been facing these new responsibilities in a dramatic fashion. We see that happening as well with the county probations.

It shifted quite dramatically the responsibility and the supervision of lower-level felons from parole to county probation and we see it hit quite quickly and obvious how that happened.

The state parole population, for example, declined in just the first year from 127,000 to about 73,000 in that first year alone.

And if we look at after that first year what the new caseloads for the county probations are in terms of the post-release community supervision, we see that stands at about 34,000 after one year.

And then there’s also an additional 3,300 on mandatory supervision. These are released offenders who received a split sentence who are then upon release being supervised by county probation.

But having said that, I think there’s one important point here that’s certainly worthy of discussion and that is that most realigned felons who are serving their time in jail are not receiving a split sentence. About three-quarters of them will be released without any supervision. I think that’s an important point. That’s something to keep in mind and, as I said, worth having a discussion.

Let me end by just pointing out that Realignment certainly is represents something that presents both challenges and opportunities. It does provide an opportunity to shift from our costly incarceration that was taking place in our state prisons to local approaches that are stressing more of the evidence-based practices.

I think it’s important that we consider and pay attention to what Realignment is doing in terms of overcrowding in the jails, to make sure that we didn’t simply shift the problem of lawsuits from the state to the counties.

One of the issues that’s most commonly discussed when it comes to Realignment is of course the concern that it has negative impact on public safety. And the focus of these discussions has really been the one that pointing out that, “Well, with less incarceration, there’s more street time for offenders.” The concern is that they will participate in more crime.

I think that one of the things that we need to keep in mind that as we move forward here is that recognizing that our jails are crowded. There are a number of releases that are taking place because of those capacity constraints. In order to minimize any negative effect, it points towards the need to really identify the individuals who are the least and lowest risk to re-offend and hence minimize the negative impact to public safety.

But it’s also pointing towards an opportunity here that if we can identify what the most effective evidence-based practices are that work in our communities and we can identify the offenders who can benefit from these as well as providing these services as well as treatment and programming that that’s going to be an opportunity to reduce re-offending, and we have a very high recidivism rate in California. So this will be something as well that might very well benefit the state in terms of public safety.

…Even with the impressive drawdown in the prison population of 27,000 as I said in the first year and it’s leveled off, we don’t see any further reductions, we’re still 9,000 to 10,000 short of the mandate that the three-judge panel issued. And the question is what are the solutions going to be to handle this population and how is that going to impact the counties.


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