Well, it’s happening. California’s counties have begun to implement some of the most far-reaching changes in their recent history as a result of Assembly Bill 109, the Public Safety Realignment Act. It’s a sea change in the state’s criminal-justice system that places more emphasis on rehabilitation and alternatives to incarceration than ever before.
For several decades, that system has been dominated by two forces: politicians’ need to look “tough on crime” by passing stiffer sentencing laws, and the growing power of the correctional officers’ union. The result has been more prisoners serving longer sentences and, thus, more prisons and prison guards—the so-called prison-industrial complex.
Three factors have created a perfect storm to compel change. One is the state’s budget crisis. The second is a federal-court ruling mandating that the state reduce its prison population by 34,000 in two years. And the third is Gov. Jerry Brown’s determination to transfer many of the functions of state government to the counties, a.k.a. realignment.
Most counties—including Sacramento—don’t have room for these offenders in their jails. As a result, they’re being forced to be innovative by setting up programs designed to keep people out of jail—alternative custody using ankle bracelets, pretrial-release programs, and programs to reduce recidivism by providing a wide range of services, from drug and alcohol treatment to GED studies.
This is all well and good, but nothing is better for keeping someone on the straight and narrow than actually having a job. Counties would be wise to lobby for legislation that makes it easier for ex-offenders to find work. It will take innovation to remove the barriers to employment ex-offenders face.