Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Deincarceration in California: Evaluating 'realignment' one year in

Last year federal courts ordered California to radically reduce its prison population, and though it hasn't yet met targets set by the judges, their number of prisoners declined radically. That left Texas as the state incarcerating the most people, though the Golden State's population is half-again the size of ours. Many California inmates were shifted to county jails while an even greater number ended up on some form of community supervision. Yesterday was the one year anniversary of California's "realignment" scheme, which shifted responsibility for supervising certain low-level offenders to counties. According to the group, Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB)
"The good news about realignment is that there were 30,000 fewer people who spent last night in a cell than there were when Gov. Brown was elected," said Emily Harris of Californians United for a Responsible Budget. "Because the state is spending $800 million less on Corrections than we did two years ago, we avoided another $800 million in cuts to services for poor children and the elderly."

The state's prison population has dropped to 124,701 from a high of 173,479 in 2006 while the state's jail population has increased by 2,849 over the last year. Crime rates continue to fall statewide.

"If we can have 30,000 fewer people locked up in a time of massive unemployment and widespread foreclosures without seeing an upturn in crime, then it is clear we didn't need to have all those people locked up in the first place," said Harris.
The ACLU of Northern California offered less sanguine figures on the scope of reduced incarceration, estimating that:
while the state's prison population has decreased by nearly 25,000 during the past year, counties have increased their own jail capacity by more than 7,000 beds, spending tens of millions of dollars in state realignment dollars to expand jail capacity. Billions of additional dollars in the form of state lease-revenue bonds are in the pipeline for even more jail construction that would create an additional 10,000 beds. This despite the ACLU's new polling data showing that 75 percent of state voters favor investing public money in more prevention and alternatives to jail for non-violent offenders.
That group issued a briefing paper (pdf) predicting that short-term incarceration reductions wouldn't last unless more resources are devoted to programming aimed at supervising offenders in the community and reducing recidivism. An appendix to that document included polling data focused in part on public attitudes toward pretrial detention, presenting:
to voters a hypothetical match-up between two potential candidates for the State Legislature – one candidate who voted in favor of allowing more monitoring in the community instead of jail for people awaiting trial for non-violent offenses running against a candidate who voted against this proposal. The reform candidate won by a nearly 3-to-1 margin with 63 percent to only 23 percent for the candidate opposing the reform. The reform candidate drew bipartisan support and led among Democrats (74 percent to 14 percent), independents (64 percent to 22 percent) and even Republicans (46 percent to 36 percent).
As is the case here in Texas, a sizable majority of inmates in county jails (nearly 70%) are incarcerated while awaiting trial.

It should be noted that the ACLU-NC figures and those from CURB aren't entirely contradictory: CURB compares the present prison population to a 2006 high. And the the ACLU-NC estimated 7,000 beds of expanded jail capacity, while CURB said the the number actually incarcerated in county jails "increased by 2,849 over the last year." While CURB says the prison population reduced "nearly 30,000" in the last year and ACLU-NC pegged the reduction at "nearly 25,000," the San Francisco Chronicle put the figure at 27,000. So the precise figure is apparently a matter of some dispute.

A couple of news stories commemorating realignment's anniversary stand out. For instance, though Alameda County (Oakland), "was already sending 30 percent fewer people to prison than the state average, the county still managed to cut new prison admissions by 39 percent during the first nine months of prison realignment" without a noticeable uptick in crime. There have been some problems, though, as "The already-thin probation department staff had to adjust to a new approach: rehabilitation of its inmates, rather than the traditional 'trail 'em and nail 'em,' or watching for violations that would land probationers back in prison."

There has been tremendous variation among counties regarding how realignment has been implemented, reported the San Francisco Chronicle: "Stanislaus County, for example, has about half the population of San Francisco but houses nearly 1,200 inmates in its county jails - nearly as many as San Francisco's 1,500. The Stanislaus County jails were at capacity even before realignment took effect, and Sheriff Adam Christianson said the influx of inmates this past year - more than the state forecast - forced the jail to release hundreds of criminals, whom he called "the best of the worst." San Francisco, by contrast, "gave probation 81 percent of its realignment funding and spent 19 percent on health and treatment services. A tiny fraction went to the Sheriff's Department, which is operating jails at below its population capacity. The only new beds in the pipeline are at a center intended to help state prisoners transition back into the community during their last two months before release." 

Even critics acknowledge that reported crime statewide hasn't noticeably increased, though they're quick to point to anecdotes to support such a meme. Said the President of the tuff-on-crime Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, "We're not trying to make a statewide case yet, the numbers aren't up, but when you see fires pop up all over the forest, you don't wait a year to say the forest burned down." Given that California's crime rate last year hit a 42 year low, Grits wouldn't be surprised to see a slight uptick, even if realignment hadn't occurred, but I also consider it equally likely the state will follow national trends and see crime continue to drop. My personal view is that with incarceration levels at all time highs, the marginal benefit of extra incarceration is minimal, just as the marginal extra crime from reduced incarceration is likely to be low. Especially for violent offenses, I wouldn't expect realignment as it's played out in California - with significant extra funds shifted to counties to aid with supervision - to have a tremendous impact on crime one way or the other. But with such wide disparities in how counties are using that money, it's difficult to judge at this early stage, and of course, time will tell.


Anonymous said...

This article dovetails nicely with the "rational approach to incarceration" article posted here on Sept 29th.

...shifted responsibility for supervising certain low-level offenders to counties.

Texas county jails actually make money for a certain number of days when an offender sits in the jail waiting to catch the chain. So shifting that cost as well as low risk/ low level offenders to counties would dramatically drop incarceration rates in Texas. Go one step further and change the many many misdemeanor offenses to punishment by fine only and you have a home run.

Arce said...

One of the serious contributing factors to over-incarceration is that the people who charge, prosecute, try, sentence, etc., have very little skin in the game as it relates to the cost of incarceration. At alternative would be to have the county from which the DA, judge, jury, etc. are elected/seated have to pay for the incarceration of the convict, appeals, etc.

Imagine if the lege said in 2013, "beginning in Sept. 2014, the county government will be required to budget and pay for incarceration (including medical care) of all persons sent to state prison and/or jail after September 1, 2014." Cost would be somewhere north of $50,000 per year per convict. It would solve the state budget crisis!!! The state could then focus on funding probation and parole, re-entry programs, etc.

It would make prosecutors more likely to offer reasonable plea bargains and judges more likely to sentence convicts to probation and parole where reasonably appropriate.

Anonymous said...

I like Arce's idea.

rodsmith said...

nice but the local govt's response to the state would be

No problem! But you do realize that to accomplish that We are now required to KEEP all tax income and feeds generated in THIS county HERE! to pay for it!

I'd be willing to bet that most counties would come out ahead!

Anonymous said...

I have said on here plenty of times. If the county of conviction had to pick up the entire costs of incarceration of someone, then the whole system would be turned upsdie down on it's head.