California Prison Overhaul: Justice Best Administered Local

California Prison Overhaul: Justice Best Administered Local

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Editor’s Note: A new California law could answer the U.S. Supreme Court’s order to stop prison overcrowding. But the state’s funding plan could penalize innovative counties.

OAKLAND, Calif.--California is on the brink of a massive overhaul of its criminal justice system. The changes could become a model for the United States--or could be a disaster.

California is in a budget crisis, and spending on corrections not only drains billions of dollars every year from the state, but yields horrible outcomes. Now the U.S. Supreme Court has ordered the state to end the unconstitutional practice of overcrowding its prisons.

At the same time the state is facing extreme challenges, though, it is being given enormous opportunities.

There are more than 140,000 inmates in a prison system designed to hold 80,000. And California has sent another 10,000 or more inmates to be held at facilities in other states.

The vast majority of California's prison overcrowding problem is due to the incarceration of individuals with technical violations of their parole and probation and of those convicted of nonviolent crimes.

Despite inaccurate media portrayals and fear mongering by some officials, the state can adhere to the Supreme Court ruling without releasing a single violent offender early and possibly without releasing anyone even a day early.

In April, the legislature passed and Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law, AB 109. This legislation, known as “realignment,” could give California the answer to the Supreme Court decision. The new law enables the state to send nonviolent, non-serious offenders to county jails and to alternative treatment, rehabilitative, and residential programs.

The question now is: Will the state will do the right thing and provide California's counties with the necessary resources to appropriately handle this population? There is a possible win-win here. The state can save money, but also fund this new legislation at a reasonable level. The counties can take on this new responsibility and provide rehabilitation and public safety.

Last week the state released an allocation formula to fund counties to implement AB 109, but the formula is severely flawed. The allocation would reward counties who have sent large numbers of people to prison while penalizing counties, such as Alameda, which have been more creative at providing alternatives and interventions other than state prison. There is an immediate need for advocacy that will press the state to get this right.

Although Alameda County can do much better, it has been a leader in establishing alternative treatment programs, which have reduced the percentage of inmates from the county in state prison.

A county that has successfully diverted people from incarceration shouldn't then be penalized by a funding-allocation formula based on its percentage of prisoners in the state system.

Although the governor's realignment plan is ultimately a budget balancing measure, the spirit of the legislation is also to reduce the state’s over-reliance on incarceration and utilize proven treatment and rehabilitation efforts more.

Rehabilitation is cheaper than incarceration. Alternatives to detention are both safe and far less expensive. We all know how badly California’s schools and public services need more resources. Money that can go into those areas improves everyone’s situation. Better educational and public services play important roles in preventing crime.

California needs to focus on proven solutions. Many states have already safely reduced their prison populations. They have far lower rates of recidivism than California--and safer streets. Research, too, has shown that alternatives to detention for nonviolent, lower-level offenders lead to better public safety at a lower cost.

Before returning home to the Bay Area, I was in New York as the deputy commissioner of probation. The state of New York has massively cut its prison population while enjoying an extreme drop in crime. New York's prisons are at 50 percent capacity -- 120 percent lower than California's.

And—believe or not--New York City continues to be the safest big city in the country.

The road ahead is certainly not easy and not without risk, but California can make better decisions to value education, prevention and rehabilitation over costly, ineffective incarceration.

The writer is the Chief Probation Officer of the Alameda County Probation Department.