Prison realignment: Good for state, bad for counties?
Of all issues surrounding California's Public Safety Realignment Act, the myth that some state prisoners were released early is, by far, the most pervasive.
"That is the most wide-ranging and erroneous myth," said Luis Patino, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections. "There was never a single state prisoner that was released early because of realignment. It just never happened. Period."
Patino said another common misconception associated with realignment is the false belief that the new system changed the so-called "good behavior" credit formula.
"Prisoners were only released from state prison after serving their full term," Patino said.
Sutter County in 2012
• Received about $2.5 million for law enforcement realignment adjustments.
• 159 offenders were supervised by probation who would've been supervised by parole.
• 93 offenders were sentenced to serve their prison terms in the Sutter County Jail.
Yuba County in 2012
• Received about $2 million for law enforcement realignment adjustments.
• 120 offenders were supervised by probation who would've been supervised by parole.
• 79 offenders were sentenced to serve their prison terms in the Yuba County Jail.
Three prongs of realignment:
1- Under the Public Safety Realignment Act, those convicted of lower-level felonies – nonsexual, nonviolent, and nonserious offenses – now serve sentences in county jails instead of state prisons.
2- Offenders who would’ve been supervised by state parole officials before realignment are now supervised by county probation departments.
3 -Parolees who violate terms of their release will serve their violation time in jails rather than prisons.
It's been more than a year since California shifted responsibility for so-called "lower-level" criminals to its 58 counties and the project dubbed "prison realignment" is still a work in progress.
"The question of whether Public Safety Realignment is working cannot possibly be answered with a simple 'yes' or 'no,'" said Chris Odom, interim chief Sutter County probation officer.
Enacted in October 2011, the Public Safety Realignment Act was the state's primary response to a US Supreme Court order to reduce the overall population by 34,000 inmates in California's 33 prisons by May of 2014.
On a 5-4 vote, the court determined that, due to overcrowding, California failed to provide basic medical and mental health care to inmates, constituting cruel and unusual punishment.
"The overall (prison) population has decreased very significantly," said Luis Patino, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections. "Realignment is an attempt to reduce the numbers the best way possible while keeping public safety at the forefront of law enforcement priorities."
Since Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 109, the state prison population has dropped by more than 25,000 inmates, according to the governor's office.
Under the Realignment Act, criminals convicted of "nonviolent, nonsexual, nonserious" felonies are now sentenced to county jails instead of state pri ons. Additionally, those same offenders are now supervised after their release from jail by county probation departments instead of state parole officers.
Additionally, the counties received money from the state to handle the additional burden. The dollar total that each county received was not available.
Proponents of realignment praised the historic changes, saying local communities would have better success rehabilitating criminals.
"The whole concept is the realization that we can't just incarcerate our problems away," Patino said. "We have to focus on getting at the root problems of crime and when you incarcerate close to homes and families, people have more incentive to do better."
Counties were given money to add or enhance a variety of programs to use as alternatives to incarceration.
"I believe that Public Safety Realignment is an opportunity for Sutter County to create a system that works for our community," Odom said, "and, for the first time, with funding that will sustain these programs and practices, with the local controls to make adjustments as we see fit."
Brown said realignment closed the "revolving door" of low-level felons cycling through the state prison system.
Critics, including many of the local agencies now saddled with the additional prisoner and ex-convict burdens, believe realignment merely transferred the so-called "revolving door" to the county level.
"It's bad public policy," Sutter County District Attorney Carl Adams said. "We were forced into doing something we knew was not a good idea."
Adams said realignment is working "better than we thought it would, and it's working better in Sutter County than in many other places."
"Whether it's better than the old system when it comes to reducing crime is still an issue that hasn't been decided," Adams said.
In the end, many local officials believe the success or failure of the new public safety system will be determined county by county.
Lesser felonies on the rise, statistical data a mess
While many are pleased with the new emphasis on treatment and rehabilitation, some local authorities have said realignment may end up creating as many problems — or more — than it ends up solving.
"We don't know if it (realignment) is working or not," Yuba City Police Chief Rob Landon said.
Landon noted a roughly 9 percent increase in overall felonies in Yuba City during 2012 and said at least part of the increase could "possibly" be attributed to realignment.
"It's very possible it contributed to the rise, but there's no way to really quantify that," Landon said. "We are seeing people who are arrested and convicted that are not doing the same amount of time as before."
Marysville Police Chief Wally Fullerton also saw a 10 percent hike in his city's crime rate after prison realignment.
"It (realignment) is not putting people in prison who should be in prison," Fullerton said in a recent interview.
Landon stopped short of blaming the crime spike solely on realignment, but said it was likely a significant contributing factor.
Access to accurate prisoner information and statistical data is another area of concern under the new system, particularly when tracking repeat offenders, the "recidivism rate."
Before realignment, California's recidivism rate was tracking between 70 percent and 80 percent. Now, there's no real way to keep track of the same rate, authorities said.
"Under realignment, the definition of 'recidivism' has changed," Sutter County District Attorney Carl Adams said.
Adams said local officials only have direct access to local records.
"We're only going to know if a person has served time in the local county jail and we don't know if he's served time in another county," Adams explained. "We have to ask if we're really keeping track of the right numbers and if we can really compare the new system to the old system."
Yuba County District Attorney Pat McGrath said each county is now defining 'recidivism' differently.
"The statistical range of data being collected is no longer uniform," McGrath said.
Additionally, because each county is given tremendous latitude to develop its own programs, each county is also using its own system to define goals, objectives and success and failure rates.
More emphasis on rehabilitation
Local agencies that picked up additional burdens and responsibilities still have mixed feelings about the realignment system.
But all agree it's still too early to know exactly how it will affect public safety.
Yuba and Sutter counties are using money from the state to build new treatment programs and enhance other counseling options designed to reduce recidivism. Additional emphasis has been placed on drug courts, and programs for mental health treatment, as well as classes for jail inmates, including 12-Step drug and alcohol classes, anger management and others.
"Many of these programs were not previously available in small counties such as ours," said Chris Odom, interim chief Sutter County probation officer.
Yuba County Sheriff Steve Durfor has said collaboration with other departments kept costs to a minimum while dealing with realignment implementation.
"Initially there was an uptick in the jail population, but over time it's tapered out and stayed at a manageable level," Durfor said. "We always ensure there is room in the jail for those people that pose the greatest risk to public safety."
Despite the additional burden, many believe local communities will do a better job rehabilitating some offenders than the state did.
"I think the locals are able to provide a better service than the state and I think the state knows that, too," Yuba County Probation Chief Jim Arnold said in a recent interview.
Brian Davis, the Yuba County public defender, said many offenders are getting more help under the new system.
"I know it (realignment) puts a strain on the local system, particularly the jail, but it's also putting people where they can get the most help," Davis said. "And, hopefully, it keeps many of the people from reoffending."