Aug. 20 2014 09:16 AM

It's not perfect, but it's a big step in the right direction

Get out of jail card
This past Sunday, both U-T San Diego and the Los Angeles Times published stories about the effects of recent prison-policy changes in California. The U-T's story noted that parole releases of people sentenced to life terms have gone way up in the past five years, a result, authorities say, of a 2008 state Supreme Court decision that changed the way convicts are considered for parole. The Times story looked at the dramatic increase in the number of offenders who are being released early from county jails as the state's 58 counties cope with the overcrowding caused by California's 3-year-old realignment law.

The U-T story was a dispassionate explainer of sorts on the Supreme Court ruling, which barred the state from denying parole simply because of the nature of the inmate's offense. The state must consider whether or not the person remains dangerous.

The Times story took a more critical tone as it detailed how counties are operating in the early years of post-mass-incarceration, noting that many offenders—some who were arrested on domestic-violence charges—are being released after serving only tiny fractions of their sentences and quoting officials who believe the new reality is emboldening criminals.

CityBeat has long advocated for less incarceration and more use of alternative sentencing in California, and we supported the basic concepts behind realignment, which is the wonky term for diverting to county jails some lower-level offenders and parole violators who'd otherwise be sent to state prisons. Besides relieving severe overcrowding in state prisons, the idea is that nonviolent criminals would stand a better chance at rehabilitation by being sentenced closer to home, where there would be expanded services to put them back on the straightand-narrow. The state is sending money to the counties to pay for the increased burden, but counties largely believe the funding falls short of the need.

In May, Harvard Law and Policy Review published a 31-page article by Joan Petersilia, co-faculty director at the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, revealing the findings of her study of the impacts of realignment. Petersilia and her team interviewed 125 people from police departments, sheriffs' departments, courts, prosecutors' offices, public-defender agencies and probation departments. It's good reading for anyone who wants to dive deeper into incarceration policy in California.

Petersilia concludes, not surprisingly, that realignment is getting "mixed reviews" from the folks interviewed. Counties are struggling mightily to deal with the swelling jail populations. "Prosecutors lamented the deep jail discounts given to arrestees due to crowded jails," she says.

Something like realignment was absolutely necessary after decades of emotional, misguided, "Lock 'em up and throw away the key" criminal-justice laws and years of budget crisis pushed the state's massive prison-industrial complex to its breaking point. The "rehabilitation" in California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has become a sick joke—criminals were almost guaranteed to come out worse than when they went in. Even for those who don't, it's next to impossible to get a job after release.

At the least, realignment forces counties to get creative and proactive when it comes to alternative sentencing and rehabilitation. After all, it's very much in the counties' interest to reduce recidivism. They just need the financial resources from the state.

"Despite the obstacles," Petersilia wrote, "our interviews suggest that even in the early going, counties are experiencing some success. Officials reported collaborating with one another in surprising and unprecedented ways, embarking on jointly funded initiatives, eliminating duplication, and approaching justice from a system-wide perspective, rather than a narrower agency perspective. Realignment has also encouraged counties to take a more holistic view of offender needs, treating them within their family and community contexts."

Sounds promising.

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