California corrections 2011: A year in review

This has been a momentous year for the profession that can surely be defined as overwhelming, maybe even disastrous


By Bob Walsh

This has been a momentous year for the profession within the formerly great state of California. Monumental. Nearly overwhelming. Maybe even disastrous. It depends a lot on who you ask and from which side of the issues you are looking.

The Books Not Bars crowd is no doubt deliriously happy about the near-total demise of the Division of Juvenile Justice. Of course it only means that juvenile criminals are now mostly being housed in local facilities which may or may not provide the treatment and security the state institutions do. They will for the most part be closer to home, which facilitates visiting, but most juvenile offenders these days are gang involved so the gang is their functional family.

If they had a functional biological family they might not be locked up in the first place. I don't regard this one as a win for anybody but the kook fringe, and in the short run the taxpayers. DJJ is very expensive per body to operate. The long run is another story altogether.

The over-riding news for 2011 for the profession on the adult side was a decision from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Their order to CDCR to reduce population to 137 percent of design capacity was upheld by SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States).

That means the state is being forced to divest itself of about 44,000 convicted felons over 24 months, leaving about 18 months from now to complete the population reduction. The governor and the department are adamant that this will not mean prisoners will be released to the street, but this assertion is clearly false. It is barely possible the state will not be releasing prisoners early directly to the street, but the counties are already doing so.

Other court action has forced CDCR to begin to build a massive prison hospital, with one more on the drawing board. This $900 million facility located just outside of Stockton will contain more hospital beds (1,722) than the entire rest of all of the hospitals in the county combined. It is expected to have an impact across the region for medical hiring. It will cost a great deal of money to operate.

Realignment—a cash cow?
The companion piece to this news is realignment. This is Governor Jerry Brown's buzzword for moving (dumping?) most newly convicted felons into local lockups to serve their sentences. Theoretically the local agencies, being closer to the problem, will be more nimble and be better able to deal with issues. Theoretically.

The locals thought they were getting N3 prisoners. This is what they are calling non-serious, non-violent non-sexual offenders that have been deemed suitable for local housing. The problem is that the N3 classification is based solely on their current commitment offense not on their arrest history or even conviction history. Also the legal definition of what an N3 offense is has sandbagged some of the locals.

For instance, resisting arrest with force is a non-violent offense, even if the officer is hurt or killed during the resisting. Possession of explosives is a non-serious offense. Statutory rape is a non-sexual offense. The Los Angeles County DA has instructed his people to start hammering new commitments whenever feasible so they will be shipped to state prisons rather than local lockup.

Some of the locals are claiming that they got bamboozled on realignment. What I suspect really happened in many of these cases is the Boards of Supervisors saw realignment as a cash cow without realizing how expensive felony prisoners can be to maintain.

As an additional factor the revenue stream for the locals to operate realignment is not guaranteed. It was created by a simple act of the legislature, shifting 1.3 percent of the state sales tax revenue to the locals. That funding could be taken away next year, but the responsibilities for housing and supervising realignment prisoners and parolees would not. The governor has promised to put (more accurately try to put) a funding initiative on the ballot in November of next year. He can't promise it will pass.

An important byproduct of realignment is the certainty of significant workforce reduction within CDCR, much to the dismay of the California Correctional Peace Officer Association. CCPOA is the union that represents rank-and-file peace officers within CDCR. The number of parole agents needed for the department may be cut more than 50 percent within the next 6 to 12 months as the supervision of released felons shifts to the locals. Maybe more than that within 18 months.

The state is still required to supervise some sex offender and all second strike cases but most of the work of supervision of released felons will fall to the county probation departments, or newly created and not yet staffed county parole offices.

Staff disruptions
In addition there is the virtual certainty of massive staff disruptions for institution-based personnel. Both the department and the union are asserting that there will be few if any layoffs providing staff with less than five years or so are willing to accept conversion to PICO status or OTAP status and are willing to relocate.

A PICO is a permanent-intermitted Correctional Officer. OTAP is the overtime avoidance pool. A PICO will probably be able to get their 13 shifts a month to maintain their seniority and health benefits. That is not guaranteed. OTAP is a regular 40-hour a week position with regularly scheduled days off but without a regular assignment and maybe not even a regular shift, at least long term.

Also the need to relocate will be a huge burden or even an impossibility for many in the current housing market. I fully expect to hear tales of groups of officers sharing medium size houses or even apartments as crash pads and commuting to their real home on weekends. It will be horrible for families.

Staff with more than ten years in are almost certainly safe both in grade and in location. Those with less than three, or maybe even five years on the job are in some jeopardy. If it wasn't for the fact the department is currently short well over 2,000 Correctional Officers the situation would be grim indeed.

The department is shrinking. The work force is definitely contracting. The administration is still fuzzy. Moral among the ranks is at rock bottom. It will start getting worse early next year when "relocate or be laid off" moves from scary theory to shocking reality. The tentative SROA (layoff warning) notices may be out by the time this article hits"print." There will be some very unhappy campers this holiday season. With good reason.

Is there any good news?
The good news has been thin this year. The decision (compelled by the federal court) to build new prison hospitals was probably a good thing. The shrinking of DJJ was almost certainly inevitable considering what it cost to operate. The idea that adult facilities are overcrowded and need to be less so is not a new one. Our legislature clearly needs at times to be forced to act as it seems to be unable or unwilling to do it's job on it's own initiative.

Realignment, shifting of responsibilities for housing felony prisoners and supervising felony parolees/probationers to the counties is an unknown quantity. It will without a doubt be a short-term mess. There will be bumps in the road when a program of this size is initiated this quickly with so little review.

Medium term may be worse. There will be failures of local supervision, just as there were with state supervision. Some of those failures will be spectacular. Will these failures be enough to derail realignment and return to state supervision of felons? Will they be enough to compel the state to substantially increase prison bed space? I doubt it very much. The people of the formerly great state of California are stuck with this deal for the foreseeable future. I hope we don't regret it, though I suspect we will.

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