The long awaited realignment in California has begun. The state of California now transfers responsibility for specific categories of less serious criminal offenders to county jurisdictions rather than state prison. Let us hope that it goes smoothly. Perhaps other jurisdictions could then see a viable way to reduce overused prisons and return offenders to local jurisdictions where they may have a greater chance of successful reentry. It is clear that many other states (and the federal system) have serious crowding and other problems, but it appears that California leads the pack in the size, extent and severity of the problems. If we have learned anything in California, it is that history can repeat itself: using prisons as we have to solve the problems of crime is an extraordinarily costly use of scarce public money that is highly likely to fail.
The colossal California prison failure has taken a narrowly defined federal court order (one that had to go to the U.S. Supreme Court) to change, which coincides with a financially broke state that has no money for teachers, roads, health care, and the like. So it's about time. Some of the nearly ten billion dollars that goes to the state's prisons--over eleven percent of the state's budget--should be reduced by $1.5 billion.
Observers estimate that almost twenty-six thousand would-be prison inmates will do time in local jails now instead of prison, which one would expect would be closer to home, job, family and perhaps even rehabilitation or job training programs. There won't be the rapid and wasteful "churning" of parolees.
There is a lot of speculation about the effects of the realignment on local jail capacity, crime levels, and the like. An editorial by our local paper says that it is an "experiment" and a "gamble." Much of the discussion statewide mirrors that that surrounded of the probation subsidy program of decades past: "Will the money for all of these inmates materialize?" (When and exactly how much are reasonable questions); "Will crime levels increase?" (Hard to imagine they could ever be as high as the recidivism levels of released prisoners in California); Can we develop effective local programs to manage our own criminal offenders? (What a refreshing question. Local experience in Napa County suggests that local programs can provide beneficial employment training, drug testing and yet have substantially reduced recidivism levels.)
Let us hope that the experience with realignment will be carefully studied by researchers. We need ways of rationally assessing the consequences of our policy choices rather than allowing such things as politicians with simplistic crime control agendas, pundits, and high profile cases to guide policy decisions. The last thing we need is the hyperbolic thinking that got us into this enormous problem to begin with, like that supplied our own Republican State Senator (Runner) commenting on realignment:
"Now is the time for Californians to get a dog, buy a gun and install an alarm system. The state of California is no longer going to protect you."