Jailhouse crock

Insiders worry Capitol to bail on prison-realignment plan—and foot local governments like Sacramento County with the bill

California’s effort to realign its prison population has been anything but a clear, straight path from point A to point B.

California’s effort to realign its prison population has been anything but a clear, straight path from point A to point B.

A little more than a year after the state shifted responsibility for corralling thousands of lower-level felons and parolees to individual counties, one thing has become clear: Nothing is clear.

On the surface, Assembly Bill 109—the state’s effort to realign its overcrowded prisons—reflects a shifting paradigm that would make most UC Berkeley professors cream their hemp Patagonia trousers. The argument now goes that simply warehousing prisoners without preparing them for the outside world doesn’t work. County and statewide recidivism rates stubbornly hover around 70 percent. So, rather than sentence nonserious, nonviolent, nonsexual offenders to state facilities where they’ll simply learn to be better crooks, the plan now is to place these folks under the purview of local counties, where they’re supposedly more likely to get the services they need.

In theory, it sounds great. In practice, those administering the state plan keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“For me, it’s sort of broken from the get-go,” Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna told SN&R.

Last month, supervisors begrudgingly accepted a plan to spend $30 million in state realignment funds, but complained it didn’t go far enough to meet the goal of reducing recidivism.

County supervisors have little say over how yearly state allocations are spent. And there are other problems with the realignment plan, which was cobbled together only after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its illegally crowded prisons by more than 30,000.

Critics, and even some proponents, say realignment is a bastard child of cowardly politicians, that the long-term effects aren’t known and the money that’s earmarked for it has a cloudy future.

The “dedicated funding source” for realignment, as it’s termed, is stitched together from vehicle-license fees and a portion of sales-tax revenues. The state provided more than $850 million to its counties this fiscal year and is slated to distribute more than $1 billion during the next, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. But beyond that? Uncertainty looms.

“There was a fear from day one—and I think rightly so—that the state of California was not going to provide commensurate resources,” Serna observed.

Buried somewhere in Proposition 30—under the more voter-friendly promises of restoring schools, taxing millionaires and paying off bond debt—is language that would make the funding source for realignment constitutionally protected and, thus, permanent. But Gov. Jerry Brown’s revenue-generating ballot measure is far from a sure thing, according to the latest polling data. If the initiative fails on Tuesday, there’s nothing from stopping future lawmakers from passing legislation that could supersede realignment, said CDCR spokesman Jeffrey Callison.

If that happens, quipped Chief Probation Officer Don Meyer, “We’re sunk.”

Such a fate would make realignment essentially another unfunded mandate—with counties on the hook for all those redirected bodies but with no extra money to handle them. It’s a possibility that’s rooted in history, not political speculation, Serna said.

“The state does sort of have a long … history of getting creative, let’s say, with deciding where resources are [spent],” he said.

Before that sky even has a chance to fall, though, local officials say money is already short of what’s needed. The county requested more than $50 million from the state this year but received a little less than $30 million, 55 percent of which is going toward inmate housing.

Public-safety officials told an unhappy board of supervisors on October 16 that the allocation plan was the best they could do with limited funds. A majority of the board wanted more money for rehabilitative programming, but were told that “hard costs” like jail beds were unavoidable.

Such will be the case next year, too, and likely won’t change unless crime rates suddenly drop, officials said.

“The reduction will occur as the system stops being fed by people committing crimes,” Jamie Lewis, the sheriff’s department’s chief deputy of correctional services, told supervisors last month. “I don’t know how that happens exactly.”

He’s not the only one.

A recent Public Policy Institute of California report on realignment also proved to be a big fat question mark. With many county jails already facing capacity challenges, the nonpartisan research foundation surmised that local facilities were making room for tens of thousands of newly sentenced inmates by incarcerating fewer parole violators and people awaiting trial. How safe this strategy is remains to be seen, the report states.

Public-safety officials say realignment has already changed the makeup of local jails, with a population that’s more sophisticated at gaming the system.

And, according to Lewis, “There’s no question that this population is both sicker and more fraught with mental-health issues.”

This dynamic has translated to the streets as well, with patrol deputies encountering more probation violators who would likely be incarcerated if not for realignment.

“Without a doubt,” agreed sheriff’s spokesman Deputy Jason Ramos. “I can’t quantify it with precise numbers, but there has been no shortage of these people continuing to re-offend. I can say that unequivocally.”

Sacramento was one of 13 individual counties to face capacity issues even before realignment went into effect, with an average daily population that was regularly larger than the number of beds available.

CDCR projected nearly a thousand new felons and parole violators would be added to the county rolls during the first year of realignment. According to sheriff’s officials, there are currently a little more than that amount of A.B. 109ers (as they’re called) spread across the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center near Elk Grove and the main jail in Sacramento.

While the relocation of low-level offenders from state prisons to local facilities has tapered off, the PPIC cautioned the true impact to public safety might not be known for a while.

“Part of the problem is we don’t know how the counties will react,” explained policy fellow Magnus Lofstrom, who presented the PPIC report, “Capacity Challenges in California’s Jails,” during a meeting in September. “Just one year of this huge experiment [is] a pretty short period.”

As the experiment continues, so does, it seems, the status quo.

Under A.B. 109, the responsibility for deciding how millions of dollars in realignment money gets spent falls to panels made up by local public-safety officials with limited oversight.

Depending on your outlook, this either makes perfect sense or else is wildly inappropriate. (The stipulation was written, after all, to prevent county boards from siphoning realignment funds for non-realignment projects.)

The panel—known as the Community Corrections Partnership—represents law-and-order departments that benefit directly from realignment funds and that stand to suffer the most if the funding spout shuts off or slows to a dribble.

“The people most impacted by this has been the sheriff’s office and probation department,” said Meyer.

Realignment has shifted approximately 1,600 adult and juvenile probationers to local supervision, Meyer said. In all, 27,000 people are currently on probation in Sacramento, only a sliver of which are supervised. If realignment funding falls through, Meyer said the county will be “stuck with a population that won’t be supervised” at all.

Meanwhile, community-based organizations that focus on rehabilitating offenders, such as Ascend, have had difficulty making a case for their successful programs.

“We don’t have any real enemies per se. We just don’t have any power, because we don’t have a seat at the table,” Ascend co-director Christine Galves told supervisors.

According to a majority of supervisors and a flurry of Ascend loyalists, this has translated into zilch for private-sector groups.

“I’m trying to understand why we think it’s a good decision to have a majority of $30 million allocated to inmate housing without hearing some of the benefits of maybe some of the other programs,” Serna said during the meeting.

He was the lone supervisor to cast a symbolic vote against the plan, but board members Don Nottoli and Jimmie Yee indicated they might have as well, if not for a stipulation requiring a super majority to reject the plan and send it back to the committee.

“The allegiance should not be necessarily to an agency or historical programs when it comes to reducing recidivism,” Serna told SN&R a week later. “The allegiance should be to reducing recidivism.”

Speaking of allegiances: Meyer rejected the recommendation for a workshop as a recipe for cronyism, comparing it to a “good-ol’-boys, good-ol’-girls network.”

Ascend, which requested 1 percent of the $30 million allocation, boasts a recidivism rate of less than 10 percent of those who graduate its class. Those court-ordered clients who don’t are sent back to jail. Co-founder Toni Carbone pointedly reminded county officials of that success rate to no avail.

“In the turbulent waters of criminal justice, we are the lifeboat, and the CCP plan that stands before you today is like the USS Titanic,” Carbone said shortly before supervisors approved the plan.

For now, the Titanic lurches forward, hoping history won’t repeat.