California’s experiment in incarcerating tens of thousands of criminals in local jails or their homes rather than in state prisons is 10 months old, so the verdict is not yet in on whether it’s been a success or failure. But if Kern County’s experience is any indication, Californians could be in for a bumpy ride on the Kumbaya road to early releasing or attempting to help criminals at the local level, rather than simply locking them up in the state pen.
The statewide experiment known as “realignment” was launched last October. In the six-month period from October 2011 through March 2012 in Kern County, burglaries increased 20 percent and auto thefts and robberies were up 12 percent over the same period in the previous year, according to a recent probation report. Kern County was already one of the most crime-ridden counties in the state. Violent crime skyrocketed 49 percent from 2001-10 while property crime increased 20 percent.
The influx of hundreds of criminals into Kern County jails has resulted in a 200 percent increase in assaults on jail staff, 122 percent increase in the placing of prisoners in “safety cells,” 9 percent increase in fights, 10 percent increase in drug use and 40 percent increase in suicide watches. Longer sentences for some of the inmates, some as long as six or nine years, have led to a “prison mentality” developing among some inmates in what used to be a short-term housing facility, according to agrand jury report.
Kern County was unprepared for the inmate explosion. Nineteen barracks in the county’s Lerdo jail are so antiquated that at any time three of them are closed for maintenance. Some of the one-man cells have been converted to two-man cells. The county has qualified for $100 million in state funding to add another 790 beds.
As a result, hundreds of prisoners have been released to home detention or rehabilitation and work programs. One of those releases was a drunk driver with prior convictions who served only a few months of a six-year sentence, according to the Wall Street Journal. Another inmate with prior convictions, who would normally have been sent to state prison for several years for receiving stolen property, instead served just four months in jail and was sent home with a GPS ankle bracelet. Many inmates receive half-time credits, further reducing their sentences.
Under realignment’s goal of reducing the recidivism rate, Lerdo inmates can now take art, auto body and computer classes and receive drug counseling from four newly hired substance abuse specialists.
I asked Nevada County Sheriff Keith Royal, who is also president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, whether Californians are less safe today than they were a year ago before realignment.
“That’s a hard question to answer,” he said. “The one thing many of us have seen is an increase in crime. But the problem is you don’t know if it’s the economy or realignment. No one has an answer yet. It’s too early to know. Are we concerned? Yes. We want to make sure we don’t get sued and don’t release the wrong people onto the street. We are all in the learning stage on what realignment is and how we implement those tools that benefit our local communities. But when the day is done, we all share the same concerns: We want to make sure we make the decisions that keep our communities safe.”
The crime rate has been trending down in the state in the last decade. Violent crime decreased 30 percent from 2001 to 2010, while property crime declined 16 percent. Statistics for 2011 are not yet available on the state attorney general’s website, so it could be at least a year before the statistics comparing crime rates before and after realignment are available.
“I think the jury is still out, but time will tell,” said Royal. “But for me in managing my inmate population, I am going to do everything I can to make sure the right people stay in custody. I don’t want violent people on the street. Those who are released are the low-level offenders. Drunk drivers are doing a portion of their time on home detention along with those that show very minimal threat to society.”
I asked Royal what effect the new system will have on repeat or would-be criminals who know that they can now do the crime but may not have to do the time — even after being arrested and convicted. “Unless we do the survey, we could speculate, but we don’t know at this point,” he said. “It is a concern that has been raised. ‘Where’s the punitive action for misconduct if I know I am not going to be in jail very long?’”
It’s possible that Kern County is an outlier and many, perhaps most, of California’s 58 counties will escape relatively unscathed from realignment. But all county sheriffs share some things in common, according to Royal. “We all agree that the numbers [of prisoners in county jails] are greater than we thought,” he said. “We all have space problems. We are concerned about future litigation issues [due to potential overcrowding and inadequate medical care]. And we all believe there’s inadequate funding. That’s a concern all of us share.”
The extent of the local prisoner influx problem depends on the county, according to Karen Pank, executive director of theChief Probation Officers of California.
“We have seen a lot of population management impacts from realignment in many counties, Kern being one of them,” she said. But “for every Kern you could probably find a county that is experiencing the same type of capacity issues, and the funding needed to deal with that seems to match up better. Depending on the county situation, realignment plays out differently.”
It’s definitely having a major impact on county probation departments, which are taking over from the state much of the post-prison oversight role. Like Royal, Pank believes a better job can be done at the local level than the state level.
“One trend that we will start to be able to see is that the people supposed to be supervised by probation that were previously supervised by [state] parole are showing up to probation at a much higher rate,” she said. “Our absconders are lower. That’s a good sign. If we are properly involved and charged to work with the right population and have the flexibility, we have the opportunity to do some good for the criminal justice system. But it’s still too early to know if all of those things will happen.”
But it’s not too early for Paul McIntosh, executive director of the California State Association of Counties, to declare realignment a major step in the right direction.
“One of the things we have been doing with the former approach is we have been ripping families apart,” he said. “You incarcerate the male or breadwinner of the family and the rest of the family is on the social service roll. One of the goals [of realignment] is to keep families together and over time they will prove successful. We have said that anything that follows an incarceration model has problems, because there’s not enough money to lock everyone up and throw away the key. Are there going to be hiccups? Of course. We are in the process of multi-generational change. It will take a decade to work through this.”
Whether California can afford a decade of prisoner release “hiccups” remains to be seen.
(Dave Roberts is a political commentator and contributes to CalWatchdog. Originally posted on CalWatchdog.)