California prisons in 2013

2013 in the correctional field in California has been largely defined by two overlapping, intersecting issues: Population cap and realignment


The year in the correctional field in the formerly great state of California has been largely defined by two overlapping, intersecting issues: population cap and realignment.

The federal courts have repeatedly ordered the state to reduce population to 137.5 percent of design capacity. A modest extension has been granted, but only a modest one. The original deadline was the end of this calendar year. The matter has been somewhat eased by bringing online the massive (1,722) new prison hospital, the California Health Care Facility (CHCF) just outside of Stockton. A second large hospital, (1,524 beds) is being built on the same property to deal primarily with medical patient-prisoners rather than mental health patient-prisoners.  

In addition, the state is moving to lease two existing prisons on a contract basis from CCA (Corrections Corporation of American) and to fasttrack the existing staff into civil service. The governor wants very badly to not release any more prisoners (or at least not be blamed when they commit new crimes).

Even the people who developed realignment now admit it needs major tweaking. The "shock incarceration" of clients, rolling them up for relatively brief periods of time for not obeying their conditions of release, is having no real effect on the client's behavior. This fact, combined with the gross overcrowding in many urban county jails, is leading to little or no effective available sanction against misbehavior.

Even proponents of realignment are agreeing that the definitions of what is a non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual offender must change. Currently only the most recent criminal conviction is used to make this determination with no regard whatsoever on a criminal’s record. This has resulted in numerous instances of violent and gang-oriented offenders being released into the community with little or no support or supervision.

Many of the county probation departments have still not fully spooled-up for handling new case loads. The LAPD has about 150 police officers (street cops) who do little or nothing else but keep an eye on realignment probation clients.  

In addition, the idea of sentencing persons to long stays in county jails is being addressed. The original idea was persons could do as much as three years in county custody on a non-serious felony conviction, such as commercial burglary. In reality there are now a number of people sentenced to in excess of 10 years in county jail, and a small number to in excess of 20 years. These facilities were simply not designed to house and program people for this period of time and everybody concerned, including the prisoners, knows it.

A recent recommendation by Joan Petersilia, an academic and one of the primary authors of realignment, asserted that supervision of most of the current realignment caseload should return to the state parole division. Whether the legislature and the governor are willing to admit that the changeover was a bad idea, and rehire the laid-off parole agents, is an open question. In addition the law already diverts funding to the counties, in part to pay for this supervision. Changing the law back may be more difficult than one would think.

The professionals in the field have been, and are still, in agreement as to what should be done. The academics are now in large part in agreement as well. Does that mean it will happen? I am not sure I would bet on it. Inertia is a difficult thing to overcome, and our political ruling class is loath to admit error. 

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