Prison realignment in Calif.: Does changing the arena change the rules?

Could counties could use realignment as a cash cow?

By Bob Walsh

Something very interesting may be happening in formerly great state of California due to the realignment plan recently enacted into law.

As most of our readers know, realignment is a plan put forward by Governor Jerry Brown to shift supervision of many convicted felons to local jurisdictions. This plan has been enacted into law. Persons convicted of many felonies will now serve their time in county jails rather than state prisons and then be supervised by local parole or probation officers on their release. Maybe.

Within the last couple of weeks there has been an idea floating around the state capitol. I first became aware of it via Senator Ted Lieu's office, though I don't know if it originated there. The idea is that the requirements of supervised parole are levied against the state, not the counties. Once the requirement for locking up felons shifts away from the state, it is possible, maybe even likely, that the requirement for actually supervising them once they are released simply goes away.

It is therefore distinctly possible that the counties could use realignment as a cash cow. The shift of 1.06 percent of sales tax revenue to local jurisdictions to pay for realignment is a done deal. The counties are, admittedly, not completely comfortable with it as it was done by a simple change in statute, not via a change in the state constitution. It would be very easy for the state to take the money back if the legislature felt the inclination to do so. It does, however, seem distinctly possible that, under the current law, the counties could take the money and decline to actually supervise the felons once they are released.

If it does in fact go down this way, we could end up with the functional equivalent of over 30,000 convicted felons on summary parole. There is currently an official summary parole operation in California; know as Non-revocable parole, or NRP.

Persons released on NRP have zero conditions of parole and zero parole supervision. They are still covered by a search waiver, but nothing else. They cannot have their parole revoked and be returned to prison by administrative action — they must be convicted and sentenced for a new crime for that to happen.

The current NRP program has had some spectacular failures, and a significant percentage of those released by the state on NRP did in fact not meet the criteria for such release. (It should be noted that Senator Lieu does not think that releasing felons without supervision is a good idea. He has been a vocal opponent of the NRP program.)

It is too early to say what is going to happen. Realignment will not be fully implemented until October 1, and even that, in my opinion, is dubious in many of the larger counties. Never-the-less, that is currently the legal deadline. (That deadline was moved from July 1 to October 1 by the legislature due to obvious implementation issues.) In addition Ted Liue's office has contact the Secretary of the Department of Corrections at least five times asking for clarification of this issue. So far they have not received any response.

What is obvious is that this whole program could result in the massive unintended consequence of tens of thousands of convicted felons running the streets with little or no oversight. That, my friends, is a scary prospect.

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