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California’s “Realignment” Law Sends 38,000 State Prisoners to County Control

California’s response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s upholding of a federal court mandate to reduce state prison overcrowding (See: PLN July 2011, p. 1)) was to “realign” 38,000 lower level offenders from state prison custody to county jail custody, and to transfer most parolees from state parole to county probation oversight. 

California’s Legislature, compelled by the reality of the ruling in Brown, promulgated Assembly Bills 109 and 117 to convert the state to a “smart on crime” philosophy.  “Smart on crime” here has two meanings.  One is the recent recognition that incarceration per se doesn’t reduce recidivism, but reintegration programming upon release, does.  The second is that California’s budget is “smarting” from endless increases in prison expenditures over the past two decades.  The mantras “tough on crime” and “three strikes and you’re out,” as well as the artificially driven 70% state parolee “recidivism” rate, have been blunted by statistics showing that reintegration programs at the county level work to significantly reduce criminal recidivism.

Focused on “non, non, non” (non-serious, non-violent, non-sex) lower level offenders, realignment has two major prongs.  The first is that the sentencing court has the option of (1) splitting a sentence between a shortened prison term followed by county probation supervision, or (2) sentencing a prisoner to county jail instead of state prison.  The second prong is that both of these choices are followed by county probation, rather than state parole, with supervision being ended in as little as six months. 

As a result, the Department of Corrections’ parole division, now handling only sex offenders, gang members, and “high-control” offenders, will suffer a staffing reduction of 80% by 2013.  But the obvious increased burden on county jails and their probation departments requires that some of the state funds once spent on paroles be transferred to follow the offender population.

To expose their plight, the Chief Probation Officers of California asked the Irvine Foundation to research and publish data documenting the transferred workload and costs.  A bright spot reported upon the change to county supervision is that “failure-to-report” warrant numbers have dropped from 14% (state parole) to 4% (county probation).  This portends that released prisoners are embracing the interest shown by probation in their successful reintegration into the community. 


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