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August 28, 2012

California struggles with prison realignment plans and alternative programming

The Fresno Bee has this effective report on the implementation challenges for California's prison realignment in the wake of the Supreme Court's Plata ruling.  The piece is headlined "California jail overhaul assessed after 6 months," and here are excerpts:

The overhaul of California's criminal justice system last year was billed as a way to get more felons into treatment and out of the vicious cycle of crime, prison and more crime. So far, this has hardly been the case.

Most offenders who qualify for rehab services instead of incarceration under the state's new realignment policy are still being sentenced to time behind bars, reports show.  Only a fraction are ordered to programs that include mandatory drug counseling or job training.

Additionally, the majority of these offenders, because of the way the new policy works, don't get supervision after their release from custody.  This supervision was common before the realignment began.

These shortfalls are adding to concern that the restructured criminal justice system, nearly a year after its October start, may not live up to promises of rehabilitating criminals. "Inmates are going to be coming out of custody unprepared, and they're going to be more likely to reoffend," said Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims.  "This defeats the whole purpose of realignment."

The realignment shifts responsibility for most nonviolent felons from the state to counties. (Violent offenders still go to state prison.) Gov. Jerry Brown saw it as a way to relieve the state's overcrowded prison system and, on this front, it's been a success. The prison population has shrunk by more than 15 percent.

Counties, it was expected, would do a better job of managing low-level criminals than the state, by offering treatment services tailored to local needs.  During the first six months of realignment, about 72 percent of the nearly 15,000 statewide offenders newly sentenced to counties instead of the state were given straight jail time, according to a recent report by the Chief Probation Officers of California....

"I think judges are still stuck in the old mind-set where they say, 'Hey, this guy deserves a harsher sentence,' " said Allen Hopper, who has studied the realignment and works as criminal justice director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.  Six percent of the state's low-level offenders were sentenced to probation programs during the first six months of realignment, while 21 percent were sentenced to a combination of jail and probation, according to the recent report....

State officials overseeing the realignment said they are not in a position to comment on how judges are doing with the sentencing.  They said it is a matter for each county to work out. But California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Jeffrey Callison said that the new policy encourages counties to make use of alternatives to jail.

In Fresno County, the Probation Department, like other probation programs across the state, has begun to beef up its alternative services, from drug rehab to vocational assistance to daily check-in centers.  "We would like to get a shot at these offenders and get them into a program," said Fresno County Chief Probation Officer Linda Penner.  "We feel strongly that a period of intervention, some sort of program, is meaningful."

Penner noted that the policy of realignment is not even a year old, and she's optimistic that its effectiveness will improve with time.  "It's still pretty early," she said.  "As programs strengthen and more alternatives are out there, I expect judges are going to have a higher comfort level and we'll see more people in programs."

Among other lessons, this report and the broader post-Plata story in California reveals that it is critical to change attitudes and culture as well as the legal rules in order to have a real shot at even modest success´╗┐ with major sentencing reforms.

August 28, 2012 at 08:21 AM | Permalink

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"The overhaul of California's criminal justice system last year was billed as a way to get more felons into treatment and out of the vicious cycle of crime, prison and more crime. So far, this has hardly been the case."

No it wasn't. It was billed as the best of a bunch of bad ways California could comply with Plata's overcrowding order. Left to its own devices, the state had absolutely no plans for "realignment," and it was not billed as a way to enhanced rehab, since, inter alia, county jails have fewer rehab facilities than the state prisons.

"Most offenders who qualify for rehab services instead of incarceration under the state's new realignment policy are still being sentenced to time behind bars, reports show."

My goodness -- could it be that state sentencing judges, who alone have specific, first-hand knowledge of the offender before them, know what they're dealing with better than the federal courts and/or Jerry Brown???

In other contexts (e.g., the value of sentencing guidelines), we hear all the time that judges know best. I assume the voices taking that view will be consistent. And we should remember that these are judges in a liberal, Democratic state. California isn't South Carolina.

If we release criminals prematurely, eventually there is going to be trouble. It would seem that "eventually" is beginning to stick its head up.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 28, 2012 10:07:51 AM

i agree with this bill!

"My goodness -- could it be that state sentencing judges, who alone have specific, first-hand knowledge of the offender before them, know what they're dealing with better than the federal courts and/or Jerry Brown???"

BUT neither we NOR the judges live in a vacuum. A prison has only so much room for inmates. Said room is diecided by any number of laws and regulations.

ONCE you hit that magic number you have two choices. STOP sending so many fucking people to prison or RELEASE the ones you figure will do the least amount of damage after release.

FAILURE to do one or the other in my book is grounds for CRIMINAL charges agaisnt those REQUIRED to make the damn decision...

I.E the fucktards in the state capital!

Posted by: rodsmith | Aug 28, 2012 12:12:03 PM

'If we release criminals prematurely, eventually there is going to be trouble.'

bah humbug! such doom and gloom predictions are highly oversimplified and potentially dangerous to everyones personal rights

Posted by: humbug | Aug 28, 2012 1:09:14 PM

humbug --

Fine. We'll release them in your neighborhood, and you can rejoice in the ensuing "oversimplification." Good luck!

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 28, 2012 2:40:11 PM

hhmmm, still waiting for the numbers to be posted on that huge surge in crime from the oversimplified predictions of doom and gloom you've been trumpeting

Posted by: humbug | Aug 28, 2012 7:26:20 PM

humbug --

It's way too early for definitive numbers, but it is unfortunately not too early for some disturbing news, http://www.crimeandconsequences.com/crimblog/2012/08/eureka.html

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 28, 2012 7:35:06 PM

Hypothecation...

Posted by: Lee Wood | Aug 29, 2012 11:51:27 AM

I think it is good that they offer drug counseling. My friend had a terrible addiction that ended up landing him in jail. He did not have the proper medicine around him for his "heroin detox" period. He almost died because of the withdrawal symptoms until a guard realized his condition. This is something that every jail should include in their correctional system.

Posted by: Michael Cornelia | Sep 25, 2012 7:58:19 AM

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