Keywords: California criminal justice policy, mass incarceration, prison reform, realignment
Corrections policy in California is undergoing an historic shiftin response to a variety of pressures-budgetary, operational and judicial. In April, 2011, the California legislature passed the Public Safety Realignment Act (Assembly Bill 109). This law shifted responsibility for specific categories of low-level convicted felons from the behemoth California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to the 58 individual counties. Under this legislation, low-level drug and property offenders committing their crimes after October 1, 2011 will be sentenced to county facilities and programs. State prisoners in these same categories will be released to their county of commitment under a version of county probation called post-release community supervision (not state parole). This commentary will briefly outline the background of this historic legislation and detail selected consequences of the Act. A discussion of research and policy implications will follow, and an invitation to consider broader social justice concerns will conclude the essay.
This commentary will only summarize the complications of the Act and its implementation. Interested readers are referred to various publications and websites for more detail and discussion. The reports, Public Safety Realignment: California at a Crossroads, by the ACLU of California (aclunc.org), and Rethinking the State-Local Relationship: Corrections by Misczynski (2011) of the Public Policy Institute of California (ppic.org) are must-reads. The CDCR website contains basic information on the Act and various statistical reports that convey some of its impact (cdcr.ca.gov). The Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice (cjcj.org); the Stanford Criminal Justice Center (stanford.law.org) and the Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy (warreninstitute.org) have developed several policy papers on the issue. The Partnership for Community Excellence (cafwd.org/pce) and the website for the Chief Probation Officers Organization (cpoc.org) act as repositories of documents related to Realignment. For a detailed overview of the legislation, Byers' (2011) statute review is instructive. Additionally, most counties have developed a section within their probation website to post Realignment information, including copies of their Country Plans and notice of related meetings.
Since the 1970s, the California prison system has expanded exponentially across several dimensions: population size, budget, staffing, and number of facilities. With some of the highest incarceration rates in the United States (which itself has some of the highest rates in the world), California has the dubious distinction of producing some of the highest recidivism rates as well. Overall, two-thirds of all inmates released from the CDCR returned to prison within three years, many of them for technical parole violations rather than new convictions (cdcr.ca.gov). Despite attempts at rehabilitation programs, and a name change in 2005 to highlight this new direction, recidivism rates remained high and few programs demonstrated any measurable result. At the same time, a shrinking California budget and decade-long lawsuits set the stage for significant policy change. While many observers see litigation as only one of many pressures, the lawsuit in question deserves some detail here. Following many challenges to state prison conditions of confinement in terms of medical, mental health and dental services, one lawsuit was ultimately decided by the US Supreme Court. Brown v. Plata found that overcrowding in California prisons did in fact constitute "cruel and unusual punishment."
As a consequence, the State was directed to reduce the state prison population by about one-third by May, 2013. At the time of this writing (mid-2012), CDCR has made progress toward this mandate. …