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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As a result, between 1980 and 2010, the number of parole violations in the state increased roughly thirty-fold. The Stanford study, conducted between 2004 and 2007, found that more than one-third of the recorded parole violations were for noncriminal conduct, namely failing a drug test or missing an appointment. Of those who returned to prison for committing a new crime, nearly 40 percent were guilty of only minor infractions — mainly drug use and possession.

"The [parole] system that we had was catastrophic," said Stanford law professor Robert Weisberg. "People were just cycling in and out. It not only maintained a very high number of people inside of prison, but it created a very chaotic inflow and outflow."

Realignment took apart this dysfunctional system. Now, nearly all released felons are put on what's called Post Release Community Supervision (PRCS), which is administered by county probation departments (the only inmates that are still monitored by state parole agents are term-to-life inmates, who typically committed murder, rape, or kidnapping). This shift has been huge, both philosophically and administratively, as county probation agencies tend to be more rehabilitation-oriented.

In Alameda County, nearly every released felon receives an Individual Achievement Plan (IAP). These are personally tailored re-entry plans that match released prisoners with necessary services. "They're really centered on what each individual client needs, and then attaching services to their needs," said Chief Probation Officer Ladonna Harris.

The IAPs also create an incentive for good behavior. If a parolee follows his plan, and doesn't violate the terms of his release, he can be freed from probation after six months — a big difference from the three years of mandatory supervision under the state parole system. So far, 86 clients, or roughly 10 percent of probationers, have met this goal, Harris told me in a recent interview.

Also, while the state parole system routinely returned people to prison for minor infractions, Alameda County Probation handles violations much more leniently. "If we have a low risk person with a small violation, then their sanction might be something like ten hours of community service," explained Harris. "We're trying to let the clients understand that we're not going to send them to jail for every single misstep."

As of October, 894 people had completed their Post Release Community Supervision. Of that total, 301 had violated the terms of their release. While it's too soon to draw a hard conclusion, these numbers are promising. In 2010, the state parole system sent more than 72 percent of parolees back to prison, according to the state Department of Corrections. In 2011-2012, Alameda County returned 33 percent of released inmates back to county jail — relatively few of whom went back for serious crimes. The county was able to achieve this despite numerous logistical hardships that occurred during the first year of realignment, and despite taking in many more high-risk cases.

While county probation departments have traditionally handled petty criminals convicted of misdemeanor crimes, under realignment they're overseeing most released felons — including those convicted of crimes as serious as assault with a deadly weapon. "This is a slightly higher risk population, and a population that's very different then what we were used to," said ex-Probation Chief Muhammad. During his first year in office, Muhammad said that he was "getting people coming back with fifteen prior convictions, who spent multiple years in state prison, and who still had a significant drug abuse problem. These were difficult cases to manage."

Many believe that probation can better handle this new population if it tightens one key policy. A little more than 70 percent of all adults on probation receive no formal supervision. Yet the county keeps convicts on probation for five years, which is one of the longest sentences in the nation. Most research shows that probation is only effective for the first eighteen months, after which it provides little to no benefit.

If the county adopted a three-year probationary period, and provided supervision in the first eighteen months, it would free up resources to more aggressively manage the high-risk offenders coming into the agency from realignment. Probation Chief Harris supports such a measure, however, she says there has been pushback from the District Attorney's Association and local law enforcement leaders to the proposal.

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors was hesitant to pass the AB 109 funding plan last week, but it was being pressured by state politicians to allocate the money it had received. If it had postponed a decision any longer, the county could have lost funding in the future. Supervisor Richard Valle, who heads the board's Public Protection Committee, said that he will continue to advocate for allocating a higher percentage of realignment funds to community-based services, but as far as this year's plan goes, he said his "hands are tied."

Supervisors Nate Miley and Keith Carson also expressed disappointment in the budgeting process, and both stated that, in the future, the Community Corrections Partnership would need to present the board with a line- item budget. Currently, a handful of criminal justice activists, lawyers, and professionals are mobilizing for the third year of realignment. They hope to persuade Alameda County to take a more preventative approach toward crime and punishment.


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