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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Pre-trial inmates don't necessarily pose a safety risk; many simply can't afford to post bail. In a report titled "California at a Crossroads," the ACLU accused this system of having "nothing to do with public safety. [It] has everything to do with wealth and poverty. ... Defendants with little money or collateral to post for bail, but with stable employment, strong community ties and no history of violence or other risk-predictive factors may nonetheless be forced to remain for weeks or even months in jail. ... People with money are able to buy their freedom while poor people cannot."

Even the US Department of Justice is opposed to pre-trial detention. In 2011, US Attorney General Eric Holder noted, "Almost all of these [non-sentenced, pretrial] individuals could be released and supervised in their communities ... without risk of endangering their fellow citizens or fleeing from justice."

Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern has the power to implement an electronic monitoring or home detention program. Ahern estimates that the cost of housing an inmate and providing services is $124 a day. By contrast, pre-trial release programs can be as cheap as $2.50 per day. Yet despite the savings promised by pre-trial release programs, Sheriff Ahern has expressed little interest in implementing one. "We have well over a thousands beds available in county jail," he said. "So that question would have to be answered well down the road."

While realignment is playing out very differently across the state, sheriff's departments have become increasingly powerful in local justice systems. Alameda County, for example, has resisted expanding its jails, but it has increased the Sheriff's Office's budget considerably.

During the 2011-2012 fiscal year, Alameda County received $9 million in AB 109 funding. Proportionally, the county then spent more money on community-based services than any other in the state. Adult Probation also received funding, enabling it to rehire twelve officers that had previously been laid off, and the Sheriff's Office got enough money to properly manage its jails and holding facilities. In short, the funds were equally and adequately distributed.

In 2012-2013, Alameda County is set to receive $29 million. The county's Community Corrections Partnership Executive Committee was charged with drafting budget proposals for realignment funds. The committee was headed by Chief Probation Officer Ladonna Harris, and consisted of Sheriff Ahern, Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan, Alameda Police Chief Mike Noonan, District Attorney Nancy O'Malley, Public Defender Diane Bellas, Presiding Judge C. Don Clay, and Public Health Director Alex Briscoe.

Last week, after a lengthy and heated process, the county Board of Supervisors approved the Community Corrections Partnership's year-two realignment plan. Of the $29 million in AB 109 funds, the board allocated at least $18 million to the Sheriff's Office, according to Ahern. Roughly $4.4 million will be directed to Probation, as well as for services provided by the DA and Public Defender. The remaining $6.7 million of the $29 million will go to community-based services.

Although the plan earmarks a substantial amount of money for community-based services, it has been criticized for being overly vague. There is no itemized budget, for example, for how the Sheriff's Office will spend its $18 million, especially considering the fact that Santa Rita Jail, which is operated by the Sheriff, is not overcrowded. "It's unclear how this money is going to be spent, and how much will go for services versus how much will go for personnel," said Junious Williams, chief executive officer of Urban Strategies Council. "It's all a maze, and we don't understand it all."

In a November 2012 letter to the County Board of Supervisors, ACLU attorney Micaela Davis questioned the legality of Alameda County's AB 109 allocations, writing that "given this lack of specificity, it's impossible to know whether the County is using the funds for legitimate means, or whether it is allocating money to non-realignment related priorities in violation of the realignment statute."

It should be noted, however, that Ahern has implemented a number of innovative re-entry and rehabilitation programs. In an interview, Ahern said the $18 million was going to provide inmate programming and services to an additional four hundred people over the next year. However, jail admissions in 2012 dropped by nearly 40 percent, so it seems unlikely that the Sheriff's Office would see an additional four hundred inmates enter the jail in 2013.

As a result, some contend that the county appears to be using the AB 109 money to cover a budget deficit, rather than realignment. Last year, the county's public safety agencies recorded an $18 million deficit, most of which was incurred by the Sheriff's Office. "We're essentially just signing over a blank check to the Sheriff," said George Galvis, co-executive Director of Communities United for Youth Restorative Justice, "and it's up to his discretion on how to spend it."

Ahern didn't answer my inquiries about how he spent the first year's realignment money, nor did he break down how he will spend his second year realignment money. He simply responded, "We will work on that on a week-by-week basis."

After the passage of the Determinate Sentencing Law in 1977, California adopted one of the nation's harshest parole systems. The duration of parole supervision for convicts went from one year to three years, the penalty for breaking parole doubled, and the list of violations that had to be reported to the state parole commissioner increased substantially, according to an extensive study by Stanford University researchers. Also, while many states only required supervision for high-risk offenders, California put every freed inmate on parole.


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