One year into the sweeping criminal justice changes in California created by AB 109, known as Realignment, there are successes and failures, but more than anything else, there is significant unrealized potential.
Despite media reports to the contrary, Realignment did not cause the early release of any prison inmates. Instead, under Realignment, inmates in state prison for lower level offenses are released on their regularly scheduled release dates, to be supervised by county probation, as opposed to state parole. Additionally, as of October 2011, individuals convicted of lower level offenses (mostly drug and property crimes), are not sent to state prison, but must serve their time in county jails. And lastly, parolees who violate the terms of their parole and are re-incarcerated must be held in county jails instead of state prison.
In addition to realizing huge fiscal savings for the state, Realignment has resulted in the inmate population in the extremely overcrowded state prisons being significantly reduced. New quarterly figures released by CDCR show that, during the first nine months of Realignment, there has been a 39 percent reduction in new prison admissions and a drop of 26,480 in the prison population. And despite pockets of spiking, statewide crime rates continue to be at historic lows. The state’s motivation in advancing Realignment was to reduce skyrocketing prison costs and to comply with a Supreme Court directive to reduce the prison population; the state has more than realized these initial goals.
Though not the primary goal, Realignment is also good criminal justice policy.If implemented correctly, Realignment can and should result in significantly improved outcomes for both the individuals in the system that it effects and the broader community as a whole. Mass incarceration has proven to be both exorbitantly expensive and ineffective, both here in California and nationwide. Incarceration is not an adequate response for non-violent offenders who suffer mostly from drug addiction. This is largely the population that Realignment addresses.
It is too early to make any final judgments, but Realignment seems to be a success in some counties and very challenged in others. Some local jails have grown beyond capacity and some counties are so overwhelmed by the increased supervision responsibility that they are unable to invest either the human or fiscal resources in prevention and community based supports. In the alternative, other counties have expanded the combined array of community based services and employment opportunities that comprise the foundation of an effective, rehabilitative justice system.
When I served as Chief Probation Officer of Alameda County, I complained that the county which held the city with the highest crime rate in the state had been given the short end of the stick on funding. Alameda County received just $9 million the first year of Realignment, with some comparable sized counties receiving nearly three times as much. But this fiscal year, Alameda County got its just due and received $29 million.
But the question in counties throughout California is, how is Realignment being implemented and how are these funds are being utilized.
In Alameda County , there have been no major problems: The county jails are not full; there have been few new crimes committed by those realigned to probation supervision and far less than what the state’s record had been; and none of the government agencies have been too overburdened by the new responsibilities Realignment bring.
But, there has been a loss in opportunity. In this fiscal year, Alameda County has chosen to allocate the vast majority of its $29 million Realignment budget to incarceration – at least $22 million of it. Only a small two and a half percent of the funds have been planned for employment services, arguably the most critical need of this population. The number one need of this population is only due to receive $750,000 of a $29 million budget.
With the new development slated to begin at the Oakland Army Base, new BART trains being built, and many other new projects underway, there is huge potential for a meaningful employment program in the County. Realignment funds could be used to establish an effective job training program to ready the population to work on these sites and even to subsidize wages to ensure widespread hiring.
While it’s laudable that most counties, like Alameda, are not experiencing major operational or crime problems because of Realignment, the apparent resignation to mediocrity – when great success is possible – is disappointing.
(David Muhammad is the former Chief Probation Officer of Alameda County in California and the former Deputy Commissioner of Probation in New York City. He now consults with philanthropic foundations on criminal justice issues)