Prison Realignment Sparks Lively Debate
By Lisa Kopochinski (12/21/2011)

A daylong event in Sacramento attracted a wide variety of opinions about California’s problematic correctional system.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — It’s no surprise that AB109, California’s new inmate transfer bill — or “realignment” — is a contentious issue. Therefore, it was a pleasant surprise when tempers remained relatively calm at a recent conference in Sacramento on this very topic, allowing for a constructive debate to take place between invited panelists and those in attendance.

Sponsored by Capitol Weekly, a California newspaper that focuses exclusively on state government and politics, the all-day event, dubbed “California Prisons: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” was all that and more. Held at Sacramento’s famed Crest Theater, the well-known challenges of California’s penal system was the topic du jour. Discussions circulated around realignment and its impact on overcrowding, services, prison reform, parole deficiencies and recidivism in four panels comprised of individuals with differing views. The well-attended conference also featured Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, Senator Loni Hancock, and Matt Cate, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, as guest speakers.

Signed by Governor Brown last April, realignment shifts nonviolent, low-level offenders from state prison to county supervision. Inmates would serve time in local jails, on house arrest, in community service or in rehab programs. AB109 just went into effect and nearly all panelists agreed that it is still too early to assess if realignment is a success or failure.

“For a practitioner, realignment is a pain in the rear,” Cate told the crowd. “But change is always fraught with peril, especially in public safety where you’re dealing with areas associated with law enforcement. Corrections is all about trying to make sure that everyone we had yesterday we still have today and tomorrow as far as our people in the prisons and keeping our staff safe. We protect the public. Change for all of that is very difficult for everyone across the board.”

Likening realignment to a game he used to play as a child on long car trips — a plastic board with colored tiles on it, with the goal of lining up all the pieces of the same color — Cate said, “CDCR has been trying to play that game with all the squares filled and that’s pretty frustrating because there’s no room to move anywhere. And when that happens, you make very little progress at getting your system lined up and effective.”

Too Much Too Fast

Though the challenges are great, Cate told the group that he certainly is not about to give up.

“I’m not saying realignment is perfect as it sits. It can’t be. It’s too much too fast. I’ve never seen anything in my life that is perfect out of the gate in private sector or government. But my hope is to implore people to act responsibly and to be thoughtful about trying to make realignment even better than it is.”

While frustrations have been high for the corrections industry, law enforcement and the public, the goal of realignment is to move inmates to the right security level at the right time — a task that has been extremely difficult due to overcrowding.

“In California’s correctional industry, we have serious problems and we need serious people to solve them,” said Assemblyman Roger Dickinson. “Public safety realignment revolves around one basic fact: that the vast majority of inmates are coming back.”

With an approximate 70 percent recidivism rate, Dickinson called the state’s system a failure, but says that realignment provides an opportunity to change low-level offenders’ lives by moving them to the local level where they can be closer to family connections and the services the counties offer.

“We’re not doing ourselves any good by thinking we can lock people up,” he said. “And we’re spending more and more money on a system that doesn’t work. It’s not sustainable. We want better outcomes at a lower cost, so we need to make sure at the county level we have enough services.”

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones had a different take on the subject, which he discussed as a panelist in one of the discussions. His main concerns fall into three broad categories: logistics, public safety, and funding.

With respect to the logistics of realignment, Jones said there are still many things not yet known about realignment that need to be worked out. When it comes to public safety, he is all but certain there will be a short-term rise in crime.

“Statistics have shown an increase in folks staying in our jails over what was predicted. Hopefully this will level off but if not, the county is in serious trouble. We will run out of room and I will have to release inmates in bulk early. Plus, the funding has me gravely concerned.”

Jones added that there simply is not enough money to do what realignment purports to do and that sheriff’s departments cannot simply “back out” if funding fails, as all other participants in realignment can.

“The ballot measure that lawmakers are talking about to protect the funding will pass if left alone, but legislators will not leave it alone, in favor of bundling it with other funding needs that are less optimistic. In the end, I don’t believe it [will] pass, but the legislature and governor will be able to stand up with a straight face and say that they tried.”

When asked what he thought would be a better alternative to AB109, Scott says it never should have gone forward without secured funding because it is too important an issue and the future of public safety is at stake.

“It’s important to remember that the only thing driving implementation here was the court-ordered deadline — nothing else. We did not have time to answer all the important logistical questions of how this was going to work, many of which we are still struggling with. And we didn’t have time to seek appropriate input from all stakeholders, including academics, civil rights groups, victims’ rights groups, probation and district attorney leaders, law enforcement leaders, and community members who would be affected by this, or involve other states that have tried this to see what worked and what didn’t,” Jones said.

He added that while he is not a realignment expert, he believes that, collectively, we could have come up with a better product.

“The process should have taken more time to get right. The state wasn’t interested in the best iteration, just a quick one. This is not the best work the state has to offer.”

Inmate Services

With a recidivism rate hovering around 70 percent, much discussion was centered on inmate services and what needs to be offered in order to slash this figure significantly. With so many resources already cut, panelist Jim Gomez, president and CEO of California Association of Health Facilities, asked, “Are we putting our money where our mouth is? We need to put money into the community in jobs, housing and substance abuse treatment. If [an inmate] does not have a job or home in 30 days [upon being released from prison] there is an 88 percent chance they will go back to prison.”

Fellow panelist Dr. Eva Marie Casperite, a specialist in inmate education, added that the problem often begins in childhood, with many children bounced from foster home to foster home. Many kids do not receive the education or family support they need and some of them have become future inmates, who often cannot read past the sixth-grade level.

“It is a lot more costly to prevent the problem than to prosecute and imprison,” said Casperite. And when it comes to educating inmates, “Teachers have to prove they have something they can offer inmates that they can use. Adults want life skills and meaning to what they are learning in order to get a job. They need both life and academic skills.”

Author Sasha Abramsky, whose latest work is American Furies: Crime, Punishment and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment, concurred. “We need proper drug treatment and proper education. We have to look at what works. There is nothing soft about this. There has to be a balance of punishment and rehabilitation. We also need to fix the juvenile system. We may not be able to fix the family, but maybe we can fix the child.”

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