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How Are Realignment Billions Being Spent?

There is a lot of controversy around The California Prisoner Realignment Bill, a legislative response to judicial decisions concerning health care in state prison.
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There is a lot of controversy around The California Prisoner Realignment Bill, known as AB 109. Steve Cooley, the Republican former District Attorney from Los Angeles predicted the prison reform legislation would be a colossal failure. Ignoring the high recidivism rates, Mr. Cooley argued on television that the prison system was working just fine before Realignment. Social scientists like UC Irvine Professor Charis Kubrin disagreed. She cited statistics indicating the need for reform and expressed high hopes that AB 109 could lead to safer communities.

AB 109, or Realignment, was a legislative response to judicial decisions concerning health care in state prison. Jurists found California prisons were hopelessly overcrowded. The only remedy that would allow California prisoners to receive adequate health care required the state to reduce its prisoner population by tens of thousands of people.

The legislature and Governor Brown responded with Realignment. The AB 109 legislation was designed to lower prison population levels by diverting certain offenders from state prison to serve their sanctions in the county jail or on county probation. Qualifying for the Realignment sentencing meant the offenders were non-sex offenders, non-violent offenders, and non-serious offenders, referred to as non-non-nons, or NNNs.

Many people on parole would also receive different treatment under Realignment. Rather than being sent back to state prison for technical violations, people who violated conditions of their parole (but did not violate new laws) would be sanctioned to the county system rather than to state prison.

Realignment meant an infusion of cash into each of California's 58 counties. According to a soon-to-be-released report coauthored by Stanford Professor Joan Petersilia and third-year Stanford Law Student Jessica Snyder, the State allocated about $2 billion through 2013-14 to implement the law, and roughly $4.4 billion by 2016-17.

In April, "The California Journal of Politics and Policy" will publish Professor Petersilia and Ms. Snyder's report, showing the $4+ billion Realignment budget does not include additional spending for county planning, staff training, local courts, and jail construction. Despite the big dollars, the state did not allocate funds for a statewide evaluation on the effectiveness of Realignment.

Who decides how to spend the taxpayer's money?

A leadership team put together in each of California's 58 counties would have discretion on how the counties would allocate their AB 109 money. The counties were mandated to form a Community Corrections Partnership (CCP) to develop a spending and program plan. Not surprisingly, each county's CCP is heavily weighted with law-enforcement officers. The Chief Probation Officer would serve as chair of the CCP, and others on the panel included the District Attorney, the Public Defender, the Presiding Judge of the superior court, the Chief of Police, the Sheriff, and a representative from social services, usually from the Department of Behavioral Health, which covers substance abuse and mental health. There wasn't any room on the CCP for community-based organizations, victims' rights advocates, or former prisoners who would be well suited to provide insight on steps county officials could take to prepare more offenders for success upon release. The County Board of Supervisors could reject the CCP spending plan, but only if it received a four-fifths vote.

The Realignment CCPs do not resemble the Scandinavian prison ombudsman system. Under that system, community members served the interests of the public, acting as intermediaries between those that represented the prison system and the prisoners. The CCP doesn't make a provision for including ordinary citizens on the panel who have vested interests in lowering recidivism. In contrast, those on the Norwegian ombudsman panels argued to deploy resources in a best-practices way of preparing offenders for reintegration with society. Rather than focusing on extracting a pound of flesh, Norwegian prisons emphasized the need for reentry. Norway's allocation of resources reflected such a commitment, and lower recidivism rates were the result.

Without a statewide funding plan for an evaluation of AB 109, social scientists want to know how and why the various county CCPs went about deciding to allocate their Realignment funds. Although law-enforcement types like Steve Cooley touted our nation's commitment to mass incarceration, social scientists understood that investments in education, vocational training, cognitive skill development, intrinsic motivation, and mentoring programs yielded much better returns for taxpayers when it came to lowering recidivism and building safer communities. State prison officials had a history of resisting such investments. Many preferred the time-tested, but expensive, practice of building and staffing more human warehouses. Such priorities led to an explosion of prison populations over the past several decades, and an explosion of prison operating costs while budgets for education, health care, and social services were depleted.

Realignment operated under the ostensible theory that county officials might be more inclined to work toward preparing low-level offenders for law-abiding lives. The AB 109 legislation provided county officials with the funds to implement evidence-based practices that have been shown to reduce recidivism.

The budget for Realignment did not provide resources for a statewide evaluation of the changes that would come with the prison reform legislation, but leading social scientists wanted answers. Professor Petersilia and her Stanford law students analyzed all of the 58 county plans. They found that only 12 percent of the total first-year allotment for Realignment funds across the state was given to community service providers that provided treatment programs and services.

The Stanford analysis also found that about 35 percent of all the allocated AB 109 money was earmarked for probation and sheriff staff salaries. That was the average, though. Some counties, like Sacramento, allocated a much higher percentage of AB 109 spending for traditional law enforcement operations. According to its published AB 109 budget, Sacramento County received $29,988,198. The Sheriff's Department scored with $20,040,553 of those funds, but it only allocated $500,000 for "inmate services," a measly 2.5 percent. Like most counties, Sacramento allocated the lion's share of its AB 109 funding for traditional law enforcement services.

Professor Petersilia and her students argued that without a comprehensive evaluation, no one was going to know what worked and what didn't with regard to Realignment. We can surmise that if the billions in Realignment resources continued to flow toward building more warehousing capacity and supplementing law enforcement salaries, there would not be sufficient resources to fund educational, vocational, cognitive-skills development, mentoring, and other evidence-based programs proven to lower recidivism and make communities safer. The "biggest correctional reform initiative in California history," according to the Stanford study, "could result in static or even increased numbers of adults under correctional control" because of a poorly designed allocation of resources, without sufficient consideration for program funding or evaluation.

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