California's New Prison Policy Has Some Skeptics

Sep 29, 2011

California is days away from launching a dramatic shift in the way it handles criminal offenders: Starting in October, the state will redirect tens of thousands of nonviolent felons away from state prisons to local facilities.

The state's plan is called "realignment." It shifts certain functions from the state to the counties, says Barry Krisberg, who teaches criminal justice at the University of California, Berkeley, law school.

"It covers not only criminal justice, but it covers child welfare, mental health, jobs programs," he said, "and it's the largest shift that we've ever seen in the state's history."

Even so, the keystone of realignment is the reversal of the state's tough-on-crime approach, to what state corrections officials say is a "smart-on-crime" strategy.

On Sept. 21, Gov. Jerry Brown reminded an audience of local law enforcement officials that the state has been ordered by no less than the U.S. Supreme Court to reduce its prison population by 30,000 inmates. Brown says realignment can help that objective without endangering public safety.

"We're not letting out the dangerous people," he said. "We're going to keep them in. That's the whole point."

Inmates now in state prisons will remain there. New offenders — nonviolent, non-serious, non-sexual offenders — will go to county jails, where they can be closer to local rehab and diversion programs.

Sufficient 'Collective Will'?

Many local public safety officials are worried, however, about having to implement the plan by Oct. 1. They wonder whether they'll get enough money from the state to do it.

"The program is funded for exactly nine months," said Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, one of the most outspoken skeptics. "What happens after nine months, we don't know."

In his speech to law enforcement officials, Brown tried to quell those doubts, saying he'll work on a way to guarantee state money for California's 58 counties.

"Now, some of you think that when I'm gone or something, they're gonna take it away from you," he said. "I want to tell you I'm not leaving Sacramento until we get a constitutional guarantee to protect law enforcement and the whole realignment process so that you get the funding you need to make the thing work."

That means getting a ballot initiative in front of voters as soon as November 2012. Jones remains doubtful about Brown's plan, however.

"I trust him. I don't trust the collective will or ability of the legislature to maintain that," he said. "I don't trust that it would pass by the voters if it made it on the ballot, and I certainly don't trust the next governor to keep this governor's commitment."

Fear Of Inconsistency

Prison reformers have their concerns, too. Sara Norman of the Prison Law Office says keeping low-level offenders closer to their homes, communities, jobs and families is a good thing, but she fears it won't be done right.

"If that programming isn't there, if substance-abuse treatment, job retraining, things like that, are not available to them, it could be a big mess," she said.

Norman says it's not just the state prison system that's beset with problems. There are more than 20 California county jails that have court-ordered capacity limits because of overcrowding.

Moreover, Krisberg of Berkeley Law says with a lack of state oversight in the plan, he foresees disparity in how realignment is implemented.

"With a state with 58 counties and the diversity of California," he said, "what we're going to see is 58 varieties of realignment."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host: The state of California is days away from making a dramatic change in the way it handles criminal offenders. Starting next month, the state will redirect tens of thousands of nonviolent felons away from state prisons to local facilities. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES: The state's plan is called realignment.

BARRY KRISBERG: The basic of realignment is it's a massive shift of governmental functions currently operated by the state of California to the counties.

GONZALES: That's Barry Krisberg, who teaches criminal justice at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law.

KRISBERG: And it covers, not only criminal justice, but it covers child welfare, mental health, jobs programs, and it's the largest shift we've ever seen in the state's history.

GONZALES: Even so, the keystone is the reversal of the state's tough on crime approach, to what state corrections officials say is a smart on crime strategy.

Last week, Governor Jerry Brown reminded an audience of local law enforcement officials that the state has been ordered, by no less than the U.S. Supreme Court, to reduce its prison population by 30,000 inmates. Brown says realignment can help that objective without endangering public safety.

Governor JERRY BROWN: We're not letting out the dangerous people. We're going to keep them in. That's the whole point.

GONZALES: Inmates currently in state prisons will remain there. New offenders: non violent, non-serious, non-sexual offenders - will go to county jails where they can be closer to local rehab and diversion programs.

But many local public safety officials are worried about having to implement the plan by October First. They're also worried about whether they'll get enough money from the state to do it.

One of the most outspoken skeptics is Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones.

SCOTT JONES: The program is funded for exactly nine months. What happens after nine months? We don't know.

GONZALES: In his speech last week, Governor Brown tried to quell those doubts, saying he'll work on a way to guarantee state money for California's 58 counties.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

BROWN: There're some of you think that when I'm gone, or something, they're going to take it away from you. I want to tell you I'm not leaving Sacramento until we get a constitutional guarantee to protect law enforcement...

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

BROWN: ...and the whole realignment process, so that you get the funding you need to make the thing work.

GONZALES: But that means getting a ballot initiative in front of voters as soon as November of next year. Sheriff Jones remains doubtful about Brown's plan.

JONES: I trust him. I don't trust the collective will or ability of the Legislature to maintain that. I don't trust that it would pass by the voters, if it made it on the ballot. And I certainly don't trust the next governor to keep this governor's commitment.

GONZALES: Prison reformers have their concerns too. Sara Norman, of the Prison Law Center, says keeping low level offenders closer to their homes, communities, jobs and families, is a good thing. But she fears it won't be done right.

SARA NORMAN: If that programming isn't there - if substance abuse treatment, job re-training - things like that are not available to them, it could be a big mess.

GONZALES: And Norman says it's not just the state prison system that's beset with problems. There are over 20 California county jails that have court ordered capacity limits because overcrowding.

And Barry Krisberg, of Boalt Hall Law School, says with a lack of state oversight in the plan, he foresees a lot of disparity in how realignment is implemented.

KRISBERG: With a state with 58 counties and the diversity of California, what we're going to see is 58 varieties of realignment.

GONZALES: We'll hear about one of those counties, Los Angeles, which will see a large influx of new prisoners, later this afternoon on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

INSKEEP: At the same time, thousands of California prisoners are resuming a hunger strike.

DAVID GREENE, host: In July, prisoners stopped eating to protest conditions in isolation cells and a requirement to give up information on gang members in order to get out of solitary confinement. The summer protest ended with some extra privileges for prisoners, like sweat pants and colored pencils, and also a promise to review major policies.

INSKEEP: But now the hunger strikers have started up again, saying the major policies have not changed. Officials say a review of policies will take months. And they warn inmates who refuse to eat will be considered a mass disturbance and they'll be punished.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.