Is Realignment a Model for Reform? 

Governor Brown and Alameda County officials have lauded the overhaul of state prisons. But is it really working?

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In 2011, 12,000 inmates at thirteen California state prisons went on a hunger strike. They protested a multitude of issues, including the deplorable conditions of solitary confinement, mistreatment from prison guards, and a lack of communal space. One of the strikers told The New York Times, "We are sick and tired of living like this and willing to die if that's what it takes."

The hunger strike came on the heels of a tumultuous decade for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Since 2001, the US Supreme Court has declared the conditions of both the state's prison health care system and its inmate living quarters to be unconstitutional. Conditions were so bad that they were likened to legalized torture.

Over the past thirty years, California also has dramatically slashed prison rehabilitation services. As a result, most released convicts are unprepared for living outside of prison, and so the state now has one of the highest recommitment rates in the country.

Two years ago, in order to combat this revolving door of offenders and to comply with a court order to reduce prison overcrowding, Governor Jerry Brown ushered in one of the biggest criminal justice reforms in California's history — prison realignment.

Also known by its legislative name, AB 109, realignment makes counties, not the state, responsible for dealing with non-violent, non-serious offenders. Realignment also reformed the state's harsh parole system and rigid sentencing laws, both of which are regularly cited as the primary factors — along with the lack of rehabilitation programs — for California's high recidivism rate.

But after Brown signed AB 109, panic struck. Many counties, particularly in the southern half of the state, were afraid that the transfer of felons from the state prison system to counties would overwhelm their local criminal justice systems. In a press statement made just before realignment was enacted, Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley cautioned Californians to prepare for "the greatest spike in crime in our lifetime. ... Get ready for this influx of criminals who are not under any effective control mechanism." By contrast, many progressives saw hope in realignment. For decades, the California corrections system had been a disaster, and AB 109 promised a new, forward-thinking method for dealing with non-violent, non-serious offenders. At its best, it would completely change how the state handled low-level crime.

In reality, however, neither these hopes nor these fears have fully transpired.

While crime has spiked in some jurisdictions over the past two years, including in Oakland, crime rates statewide have continued their fifteen-year decline. The prison population has also been thinned by roughly 25,000 inmates, and California has saved hundreds of millions of dollars. Over the next decade, the corrections department predicts that savings will climb to $30 billion.

Last week, Brown argued that the state's prison system deserves to be freed from federal oversight because of realignment. "We've gone from serious constitutional problems to one of the finest prison systems in the United States," the governor told reporters.

However, despite significant savings generated by AB 109, realignment has also moved many problems to the local level. County prosecutors have continued to pursue maximum jail terms for low-level offenders, and, as a result, many counties now have the same overcrowding issues that long plagued the state prison system. Some of the counties, in turn, have responded by ramping up or embarking on a massive expansion of county jails in California.

By contrast, Alameda County has stood apart. In the first year that AB 109 was in effect, the county implemented one of the most progressive realignment plans in the state. There was no expansion of Santa Rita Jail; instead, community-based services were generously funded, and local courts backed off their pursuit of maximum jail terms for low-level offenders. The county's Probation Department also implemented several innovative policies that reduced recidivism rates. "The success of Alameda County shows that corrections can best be achieved locally," said ex-Chief Probation Officer David Muhammad.

However, the second year of realignment could be much different. Alameda County is set to receive $29 million in realignment funding from the state Corrections Department — more than three times what it got in 2011-2012. While community based-services will continue to receive substantial funds, $22 million of the county's total allotment is set to go to the Sheriff's Office and Probation Department, as well as to some programs provided by the District Attorney and Public Defender's offices. Yet despite receiving such a large allocation of funds, there's no clear plan for how the money will be distributed, nor have the agencies disclosed how they used last year's realignment money. In addition, the Sheriff's Office will absorb the lion's share of the funds, and some activists contend that it appears the department plans to use the money to make up a budget gap rather than on realignment needs.

Meanwhile, many problems still have gone unsolved in Alameda County's local justice system. The county continues to keep a large number of people locked up in jail before they receive a trial — only to release them after they've been convicted. At the same time, the Adult Probation Department continues to require that convicts undergo one of the longest probationary periods in the nation — despite compelling evidence that it is not beneficial.

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