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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Realignment: California's criminal justice experiment


Over the last 30 years, California’s prisoner population expanded eightfold, from roughly 20,000 in the early 1970s to 160,000 in mid-2000. For at least 11 years, prisons have operated at double of their intended capacity. It’s created dangerously overcrowded prisons, making it nearly impossible for any sort of rehabilitation to occur.These conditions and 20 years worth of litigation led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in May 2011 ordering California to release 46,000 inmates over the next two years. Now Governor Brown’s prison population reduction strategy, or AB 109 Public Safety Realignment, is unfolding in what’s been the most significant reform of the state’s criminal justice system in more than three decades.In order to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision, California is in process of reducing the number of inmates housed in state prisons from approximately 144,000 to 110,000 by mid-2013. AB 109 is the state’s plan for satisfying this order by shifting many criminal justice responsibilities from the state to the county level.Realignment was implemented on October 1st, which means low-level offenders must serve their sentences locally with a jail term and/or probation. Before AB 109, convicted felons were sentenced to state prison. Inmates currently in state prison will remain there until their sentence is finished.With realignment and the option of no longer sending low-level offenders or parole violators to state prison, counties must use effective and economical alternatives to incarceration at all stages of the local criminal justice process. That means counties will be faced with the question of whether to spend more money on incarceration or use it for rehabilitation services.Four radio pieces, which have aired on KALW Public Radio, are taking a close look at how realignment is unfolding. The first piece looks how legislation in California is starting to respond to the Supreme Court’s order by ending bans of public services like food stamps for drug offenders. The second piece takes a look at how San Mateo County is balancing their realignment priorities of building more jails or investing in programs like drug court. The third piece examines CDCR’s Alternative Custody Program, a bill that puts women and parents with low-level offenses on early release. But it’s been a slow moving process due to the lack of funding for wrap-around services like housing, substance abuse treatment and job training, which was not including in the bill. The fourth piece looks out how Contra Costa County’s Sheriff and Probation Office are handling realignment with what they say is a flawed funding formula from the state.

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