By Genevieve Bookwalter
Two years ago, California began a massive experiment: shift low-level criminals from state prisons to county jails, and put local law enforcement in charge of their housing, treatment and parole.
The approach, called “realignment,” had never been tried before — in California or elsewhere. But state officials ordered the dramatic step in an effort to reduce the prison population as demanded by the courts.
Now, early reports show a mixed bag of results. The number of repeat offenders back in jail appears, anecdotally, to be dropping; meanwhile, local officials say they work together better than ever before. But many worry that county jails aren’t equipped to hold prisoners with longer sentences, and wonder if realignment plays a part in California’s rising crime rates, as some offenders no longer face jail time and others are released early due to overcrowded jails.
Still, “the biggest lesson, I think to me, was, nobody says we should repeal it,” said Prof. Joan Petersilia with Stanford Law School. “There were a lot of suggestions on how to make it better, but nobody was saying we should go back.”
Petersilia, co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, and her colleagues interviewed 125 attorneys, law enforcement officers, parole officers, offenders and more in 21 counties for a draft study released this month. In it, they examined how realignment is working so far.
Their findings, detailed in “Voices from the Field: How California Stakeholders View Public Safety Realignment,” include:
• Probation officers were the “most enthusiastic champions” of realignment, and appreciate its focus on rehabilitation and recidivism prevention.
• Public defenders were concerned that county jails, built to house prisoners for no more than a year, can’t properly serve offenders over longer sentences.
• Prosecuting attorneys said they were frustrated that state prison was no longer an option for some convicted criminals, including those they deemed serious, repeat offenders.
• Police also expressed frustration that realignment came at the same time that many departments suffered budget cuts due to the down economy. In some counties, the jails are overcrowded due to realignment and offenders are released quickly after their arrest.
“All across California people say, ‘we don’t want to go back to the way we were before, but we don’t want realignment to look like it does today, either,’” Petersilia said.
Realignment began Oct. 1, 2011, after Gov. Jerry Brown and the California legislature earlier that year agreed to house future offenders convicted of non-violent, non-sex crimes in county jails instead of state prison. The move was in response to court orders that the state fix its prison overcrowding problem by 2013.
“Universally, everyone said it happened too fast, that they weren’t really ready,” Petersilia said. “But now they feel like they got their sea legs.”
Aaron Maguire, legislative council and spokesman for the California State Sheriffs’ Association, said his group did not take issue with Petersilia’s findings, two year’s later.
“I think it’s a pretty fair recitation of what some of the remaining issues are,” Maguire said.
At the top of that list, Maguire said, he’s especially concerned with jails being able to offer the medial treatment, mental health treatment and exercise opportunities that an offender is legally entitled to while he’s in jail serving a long-term sentence. Otherwise, he said, lawsuits soon could pop up.
The state currently is giving counties nearly $1 billion total each year to accommodate realignment, with another $500 million awarded to help build new facilities. Each county decides how to spend its share, based on local need. But Maguire said even more money is necessary to meet demand.
“We need different facilities,” Maguire said. “Not, ‘we need to build our way out of this problem,’ but we need different facilities.”
Not everyone agrees with that assessment, though. Some argue more money could be going to rehabilitation.
Right now, the money “is going to build more jail space,” said Michael Santos, a former federal prisoner (released in August) and current lecturer at San Francisco State University.
Santos said a bigger chunk of that state money should pay for rehabilitation and classes on life skills and rejoining society, not jail expansions.
“They could be using those dollars in a more effective way, to encourage offenders to be a law abiding citizens,” Santos said.
Still, some county law enforcement said that, while early, they’re starting to see the recidivism rate decline.
“Quite frankly, the number of folks who have been rearrested is very low,” said Jeremy Verinsky, chief deputy with Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office.
Currently, 67 of the 541 offenders in Santa Cruz County Jail are those who previously would have gone to state prison, Verinsky said. Of the 110 released over the past two years, only nine have returned, he said.
Verinsky credited the county’s parole and rehabilitation efforts for helping offenders readjust to life outside of jail. The state’s recidivism rate, by comparison, is nearly 70 percent — the highest in the nation.
“It’s only two years in, but we’re hopeful,” Verinsky said.
In Alameda County, Sheriff Gregory J. Ahern said he too believes local counseling and rehabilitation programs are helping offenders stay out of jail after they’re released.
While numbers aren’t yet available, “early stages are showing a decline in the number of people returning to incarceration,” Ahern said.
About 10 percent of Alameda County’s 3,400 jail population are offenders who previously would have gone to state prison, Ahern said.
Still, Ahern said, realignment has its challenges. Alameda County has yet to nail down a spot for a “reentry center,” where released offenders can go for counseling and connect with community services. Similar centers have been successful in other counties around the state.
Also, “I don’t want to paint a beautiful picture. Not all inmates opt for the programs once they are out of custody,” Ahern said. No numbers are available yet on those who do continue with the programs.
Still, Ahern said he’s been impressed with the community groups, local government and others who have come together to fight recidivism and provide offenders with services they need to move forward after jail.
“I really think we’ll be more successful than we have been in the past,” Ahern said.