Thursday, September 22, 2011

Prisoner Realignment Plan: Counties Must Find Alternatives To Lockups

By Allen Hopper.  Originally published in the Sacramento Bee.

California's realignment process – which will shift responsibility for some low-level, nonviolent, nonserious offenders from state prisons to counties – has begun. But far more is at stake than the transfer of inmates. If properly implemented, realignment will reverse decades of over-reliance upon incarceration, improve public safety and save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

At the core of the realignment legislation is an acknowledgment of the indisputable failure of California's criminal justice policy on a massive scale. As the legislative findings that accompany the law explain, "despite the dramatic increase in corrections spending over the past two decades, reincarceration rates … remain unchanged or have worsened … Criminal justice policies that rely on building and operating more prisons to address community safety concerns are not sustainable, and will not result in improved public safety."

Our state's overall recidivism rate has risen to an appalling 67.5 percent, among the highest in the nation. To stem over-incarceration, counties must confront the recidivism problem. We must hold individuals accountable for their behavior while addressing the underlying reasons for criminal behavior – whether drug addiction, mental health problems, lack of stable housing, education or job prospects and others.

Each county must provide the state with an Assembly Bill 109 implementation plan divvying up their share of the nearly $400 million in state realignment funding. Since the new realignment law goes into effect Oct. 1, counties across the state are scrambling to get these plans drafted and approved by boards of supervisors in the next few weeks.

Some draft plans are in. San Joaquin County's plan calls for expanded use of home detention with electronic monitoring for low-level offenders who can then continue to go to work or to school. The plan also expands the probation department's day reporting center to create a "one-stop shop" of providers offering mental health, employment, substance abuse, education and other services. The chief probation officer has described her primary goal as "changing the way we do business in the criminal justice system."

Santa Cruz County has decided there is no need to increase jail space; instead the county will expand electronic monitoring programs. In Santa Clara County, the plan calls for an almost even three-way split of the bulk of the realignment funding between the Probation Department, the Sheriff's Department and programs like drug treatment, mental health care and job training.

In other counties, however, it is more like business as usual. In Fresno County, while the Probation Department's portion of the realignment plan calls for a commendable expanded use of evidence-based programs to deal with the re-entry population – those coming out of jail or prison – the plan also allocates $5.6 million – nearly 64 percent of the county's total realignment funding – to the sheriff, who intends to open an additional 860 jail beds. In Los Angeles County, Sheriff Lee Baca and other officials warn daily of dire consequences and demand more funding for massive expansion of jail capacity.

But no further state funding is available, and counties that insist upon long jail sentences for low-level offenses will be forced to pay for incarceration with discretionary dollars that are desperately needed for schools and basic services.

Not nearly enough county plans acknowledge the importance of employing alternatives earlier in the criminal justice process. AB 109 encourages correctional sanctions to be applied instead of, rather than following, incarceration, in appropriate cases. Rather than sending low-level offenders to jail for two years and then placing them into a post-release program designed to help them re-enter the community, county officials and community-based organizations should work collaboratively to create and implement alternative sanctions and programs. Appropriate offenders – and individuals awaiting trial – can be placed on electronic monitoring and into such programs rather than simply being warehoused in a jail cell.

Sacramento County has not yet released a draft plan, but the chief probation officer sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors setting out four "core programs" that are being discussed. In an encouraging sign that the county may take seriously AB 109's admonition to implement alternatives to incarceration, the sheriff's home detention program may be expanded.

The letter states that a facility at Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center may be re-opened, an expensive option that may not be necessary if the county sincerely pursues non-incarceration alternatives for the lowest-risk population. The letter also states that a final plan will not be ready by Oct. 1, and that those sentenced under the new law before the plan is finalized will simply be housed in the county jail. Warehousing low-level offenders in jail instead of employing appropriate alternative sanctions will only perpetuate the over-incarceration problem that has gotten us into this mess in the first place.

For the sake of our communities, our tax dollars and the future of our state, it's time for our county leaders to lay the groundwork for a paradigm shift whose time has come. Incarceration must be reserved for people who have committed serious crimes. 

Allen Hopper is is the Police Practices Director of the ACLU of Northern California, where he develops and implements strategies to improve police accountability and reduce over-incarceration and over-reliance upon the criminal justice system as a mechanism for addressing social issues.


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