Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature enacted massive changes to the penal system in 2011. The bipartisan plan the governor recently proposed to comply with a federal court order to reduce the inmate population cap is the only plan to ensure the success of those changes and help pave the way for more thoughtful reforms to come.
When the governor took office in 2011, our prisons were crowded to nearly double their design capacity, recidivism rates were distressingly high and the specter of court-ordered early releases loomed on the near horizon. Under these conditions, in a state reeling from the Great Recession, the call for a better, smarter and less costly penal system was loud and clear.
It’s a testimony to the foresight of the governor and our legislative leaders that AB 109, known as “realignment,” was passed into law shortly before the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the state to reduce our prison population drastically in May 2011. Under realignment, the least threatening felony offenders are sentenced to county jail, not state prison; most parolees are supervised by county probation officers and most parole violators also serve their violations in the county jails. Since AB 109 passed into law, California prisons house 25,000 fewer inmates. In just two years.
But realignment isn’t just about reducing the prison population. The concept behind realignment is that counties, with their social services and other community-based resources, are better equipped than the state system to give offenders the tools they need to avoid reoffending and to transition into stable, non-criminal lifestyles.
Officials at the local level agree that they’re best equipped to handle this, but without adequate time and resources our best efforts are doomed to failure. We need to give realignment a chance to work before we place an even greater burden of offenders on our counties and communities.
Those of us who work or have worked at the county level know that realignment is working, which is why the State Association of Counties, State Sheriffs’ Association and Chief Probation Officers of California have always been among the policy’s most consistent and vigorous champions. However, we also understand that the success of realignment hangs in a delicate balance.
The federal courts in June ordered California to bring its prison population within 137.5 percent of design capacity — which means that we either have to build more capacity or release thousands of additional inmates by the end of the year.
This order, if handled incorrectly, could pose a serious threat to public safety. We must comply with the order without doing grave damage both to our communities and to realignment as our path to a better, smarter penal system – the governor’s plan is the only one that accomplishes this with any certainty.
Many agree that realignment is the long-term path to a better future in which crime, incarceration and recidivism rates can all be reduced. The governor’s current proposal, Senate Bill 105, is an emergency measure to deal with the federal order without jeopardizing realignment or public safety. It does not imply a return to the prison-building policies of the past. It is simply a means to protect the progress we have already made and a bridge to continued progress in the years to come.
Linda Penner, former chief probation officer of Fresno County, is the chair of the Board of State and Community Corrections.