Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Diversion of California felons still a work in progress

Facing pressure from federal judges to reduce severe overcrowding in California’s prisons, Gov. Jerry Brown came up with “realignment” that would divert presumably low-threat felons into local jails, mental health and drug treatment programs, and probation systems.

They were called “N3’s” for having committed nonserious, nonviolent, nonsexual felonies, and local authorities were also to take charge of parolees from prison meeting similar risk standards – all to be financed by diversions of state taxes into local coffers.

Local authorities have taken control of more than 40,000 parolees and diverted felons over the last two years at a cost of more than $800 million a year, and the administration considers the project a roaring success.

Attrition via paroles and reduced imprisonments has dropped inmates almost to the court-specified level, although Brown is still jousting with judges and inmate attorneys over the last 8,500.

Brown wants to keep them locked up, either in private prisons or other facilities, rather than release them and, he says, impose a threat to the larger public.

There is, however, a great deal of uncertainty about how those diverted felons and parolees are being handled locally, and whether they may constitute a significant crime threat.

Local authorities are supposedly setting up drug treatment, mental health and other programs to reduce recidivism, but they’re also scrambling to find enough space in their jails for those who still have terms to serve – and in some cases, releasing local misdemeanor prisoners to make room for felons.

Local jails are running at more than 100 percent of design capacity, according to a new report from the Board of State and Community Corrections. And some of them face court-ordered population caps themselves.

Although new jails are in the pipeline, design and construction take years, and criminal justice reformers complain that building more jails uses money that should be spent on services to prevent parolees and probationers from reoffending.

Some local police authorities have complained about crimes being committed by parolees and probationers, but there’s been no comprehensive follow-up study as yet on that and other aspects of realignment.

A hint of the potential scope of recidivism is to be found in a recent report to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on the county’s realignment response. The huge county has been handling about 40 percent of the 40,000-plus cases and says that as of Aug. 31, 36 percent of them had been arrested for new crimes, with drug possession and abuse the most common offenses.

As yet, none of the “realigned felons,” as some reports call them, has committed a heinous crime that would spark a backlash against the program. Even so, it’s a work in progress whose eventual outcome remains cloudy.