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Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to end California’s decades-long prison crisis has a daunting to-do list: Reduce overcrowding, improve inmate health care, end federal court oversight, cut recidivism and slash the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s massive $10 billion budget.
Brown’s 2011 Public Safety Realignment Act redirects low-level offenders from state lockups to county jails, while providing local governments with millions of dollars and broad discretion over how to spend the money to handle the felons.
“For too long, the state’s prison system has been a revolving door for lower-level offenders and parole violators who are released within months – often before they are even transferred out of a reception center,” Brown said this year.
California started implementing the realignment plan in October 2011, sending thousands of offenders who would have gone to state lockups to local jails instead. Since then, California’s prison population has dropped by 26,412 inmates, a dramatic change that has cleared the system of makeshift dormitories and put the state closer to reaching a population density mandated by federal judges and endorsed by the Supreme Court. Equally striking: Under realignment, new commitments to state prisons have fallen by 39 percent.
“We have fewer people in prison now, but the crime rates are down,” said Dan Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco. “So realignment seems to be doing a good thing.”
But some local law enforcement officials are asking whether the state government is using the realignment plan to pass its problems to the counties.
“We have helped solve the state’s overcrowding problem,” said Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims. “However, it is not solving our own problems here yet.”
While Brown’s plan has helped ease overcrowding in state prisons, many counties are struggling to cope with the influx of felons flowing into local jails and probation departments as a result of changes in sentencing laws. Six of California’s 10 most populous counties have reported rising jail populations since realignment began, according to state data. Fresno County was at the top, with a 32 percent increase from the first quarter of 2011 to the first quarter of 2012.
Under realignment, offenders convicted of nonviolent, nonserious and nonsex crimes are handled by counties – probation departments if they’re leaving state prison or local jails if they’ve been convicted of a new offense. One theory behind realignment is that low-level offenders will do better if they are incarcerated closer to home and closer to available services like educational classes and substance abuse programs.