Is Realignment Obsolete? Harmful?

In recent days, realignment isn’t getting much love. A Wall Street Journal story this week blames realignment for a recent rise in property crime. Veteran readers of this blog, read the piece (or the excerpt below) and let’s find what’s fishy here.

California saw a year-over-year increase of 4.5% in property crime in the fourth quarter of 2011, immediately after the overhaul, marking the first rise since 2004, according to a report from the state attorney general this fall. In contrast, property crime, which includes burglary, auto theft and larceny, fell 2.4% in the nine months before the sentencing changes stemming from a U.S. Supreme Court decision. 

 While the attorney general doesn’t release 2012 data until late this year, localities ranging in size from Sacramento to Santa Rosa in Sonoma County saw property crimes rise last year. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, which hasn’t reported 2012 crime data, says property crimes fell 0.5% nationally in 2011 from a year earlier. 

. . . 

Known as realignment, the changes are “causing more of these people to be out in society rather than locked up,” said Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Michael Lazzarini, and that could be a “pretty good reason” for the rise in property crimes. “Not only is it continued workload for the investigators, but it’s also a quality-of-life issue for the citizens,” he said. 

Santa Rosa saw property crime rise 5% last year through November to 3,568 crimes, while violent crimes declined 7% to 585 crimes. Sgt. Lazzarini, the head of the property-crimes-investigation team, said detectives have been stretched thin since the new state law, which he neither supported nor opposed. He said he has struggled to decide which crimes to investigate. 

There aren’t enough data yet to back up Sgt. Lazzarini’s hunch on a statewide basis. Gil Duran, a spokesman for Mr. Brown, said it is impossible to make claims about the reason for the crime increase with limited data. “Any respectable criminologist will tell you that [they] don’t determine overall trends in a year or two,” he said in an email. “Attempts to tie any increases to realignment are purely political.”

Here’s what’s odd here, from a (respectable?) criminologist:

We’re given data on crime in California and on crime in Santa Rosa. What we are not given is a county-by-country breakdown. I’m not just saying this just to take pleasure in countering Sgt. Lazzarini’s hunch (since when does the Wall Street Journal write stories based on police officers’ hunches, anyway?) Every single report on realignment implementation shows that different counties have been dealing with sentencing reform in different ways. The crime rise might not be a result of people being “out of jail”. It might be the result of releasing people after their sentences without any appropriate probation mechanisms to help them find jobs. Or it might be that the recession is hitting some counties worse than others. I want Sgt. Lazzarini to show me that property crime in San Francisco and Alameda is going up (because, supposedly, these counties “let people out”) and down in Los Angeles, Riverside, and Orange (where there is an orgy of county jail building). Now that’ll be special, and even then, correlation is not causation.

Police hunches are not unimportant. Police hunches in individualized, specific situations, can and do save lives. But hunches have no place when generalizing from data, and people who can’t read data carefully should not drive policymaking.

So, apparently Governor Brown also doesn’t buy Sgt. Lazzarini’s hunch. But he has his own beef with realignment. Here’s what Governor Brown said to the federal court this week, as reported by the L.A. Times:

“At some point, the job’s done,” Brown said at a Capitol news conference before catching a plane for Los Angeles, where he repeated the message. “We spent billions of dollars” complying with the court orders, the governor said. “It is now time to return control of our prison system to California.” 

 . . . 

The population now hovers around 119,000 — about 50% more than state facilities were designed to hold. Some prisons are at 180% of their intended capacity. 

The federal courts set a June 2013 deadline to reduce that total to 137.5%. The state says it now expects to exceed the cap by 9,000 inmates. On Tuesday, Brown argued those numbers were meaningless in light of improved inmate healthcare. He further called the design capacity of the state’s prisons “an arbitrary number.” 

But former state prisons chief Jeanne Woodward disputed the governor’s assertion and said she worried that without federal intervention, the governor and Legislature would find it easier to cut funding for improvements such as new healthcare facilities. 

“Without court oversight, resources tend to get taken away,” said Woodward, a senior fellow at UC Berkeley School of Law.

This is the most recent attempt by the state to avoid complying with the Plata mandate. Of course the design capacity is an “arbitrary number”; all numbers are arbitrary. What makes this number magical is that it didn’t pop out from the sky; it was decided by the court after hearing expert testimony about proper medical care and quality of life.

And here’s another reason why this is interesting. As you may recall, the government’s solution to depopulation as a response to the Plata order was to combine it with a savings measure. Plans to move inmates from state prisons to jail were in place back in the Schwarzenegger days, before Plata. Now, suddenly we’re being told that further depopulation would not save money; it would actually waste money.

I don’t think that realignment is the best thing since sliced bread, and I think in some cases jail conditions could be worse than prison conditions. But I do think that, done thoughtfully and thoroughly (like what these folks did), it is a step in the right direction. The state’s resistance to the plan as a whole seems misguided. What the state should do instead is guide the counties, with proper fiscal incentives, to do realignment as it should be done.

Christoffer Lee, David Takacs and Aatish Salvi sent me links. The grumpy commentary is mine and mine alone.

Correctional Budget 2012-2013


 Governor Brown has released the proposed 2012-2013 California budget. The full details are here and the summary is here.

The correctional budget comprises 7.8% of the total state budget including special funds. Looking just at general fund numbers, the expenditure on corrections is slightly less than that on higher education. 
However, counting in special funds and bonds, the total expenditure on corrections will be $10,719 million, which is an increase of 11.4% from last year’s budget, and slightly more than the expenditure on higher education.
For those of you wondering how this money will be distributed among various correctional agencies post-realignment, look at the next table:
Most of the money still goes to the state apparatus with only about $100,000 being allocated to the counties. The full breakdown is available here in PDF format.

The report also lists the changes in programs that will ensue from the new budget. The main changes are as follows:

  • The decrease in numbers of state inmates (from 163,152 to 132,167) and parolees (from 108,338 to 56,440) due to the realignment implies a decrease in state incarceration and parole budgets–a reduction of $453.3 million in 2011-12 and $1.1 billion in 2012-13.
  • The outcome of Coleman v. Brown (the mental health side of the Plata case) required an increase of $34.3 million in 2011-12 and $27.3 million in 2012-13 in money allocated for mental health programs.
  • Shifting responsibilities for juvenile offenders from the state level to the county level, which decreased the size of the state apparatus (1174 to 1149 inmates, 850 to 656 parolees) also implies a decrease in budget. 
  • The Estrella Correctional Facility has been cancelled, as there is no need for more beds.
  • Expenditures for constructing the California Health Care Facility (CHCF) ($10.9 million) have been earmarked.
  • Pharmaceutical Costs-The Budget includes $59.9 million for adult inmate pharmaceutical costs, primarily driven by an increase in drug prices.
  • The budget includes an increase of $49 million in Community Corrections Performance Incentive Grants, which county probation departments receive if they demonstrate success in recidivism reduction.
  • Another $8 million General Fund and $46.3 million are reduced to reflect the transfer of resources from the Corrections Standards Authority to the newly established Board of State and Community Corrections.
  • FInally, the budget includes $101 million to restore a prior one-time reduction to rehabilitation services programs.
What’s also interesting is the distribution of funds within the counties. The full budget for state and community corrections can be found here in PDF format.  It seems to still be in somewhat amorphous form, which makes sense given that each county will probably have some freedom in crafting its own budget. 
We will continue to follow up on the realignment and on the expenditures of these funds in the future.

Happy New Year from the CCC Blog

And what a year it will be!

The Criminal Justice Realignment will figure prominently in our posts this year, with a special focus on the recent news regarding cuts that may endanger many juvenile programs. The most serious concern stemming from the cuts is that juveniles will be tried as adults. Some thoughts on the proper direction to take from Selena Teji and Emily Luhrs are posted here.

We’re also excited about the prospect of SAFE California’s initiative to end the death penalty in California in 2012, as well as a possible amendment of the Three Strikes Law to include only violent felonies.

Thank you, as always, for your readership, and stay with us by reading, commenting, and emailing.

Fresno County Jail Frees Parole Violators
Fresno & Valley News
No room in Fresno Co. Jail for parole violators
Posted: 11/26/2011 10:29 PM

In another sign that Fresno County is struggling to manage more criminals, the sheriff has ordered that state parole violators no longer will be held at the county jail.

The parolees, who were once sent to state prison if they got into trouble, are now sent to local jails instead – part of the state’s recent realignment of the penal system. But in Fresno County, where the jail already is crowded, the Sheriff’s Office has determined there’s no room for the former convicts.

State parole officials, acknowledging counties are being asked to do more under the realignment, say they’ll try to find other ways to deal with problem parolees.

Orders to not lock them up began Thanksgiving Day. While the jail has long been releasing inmates early because of the lack of space, the directive to turn away parolees only reinforces concerns that criminals aren’t serving the time they should.

“They’re out in the community and they’re violating their parole, and when there’s no consequence for violating, that’s going to be a public safety issue,” said Kelly Keenan, chief assistant district attorney for Fresno County.

Brown Vetoed Anti-Shackling AB568

When a pregnant woman goes into labor in California prisons, guards chain her up, transport her to a medical facility in chains, and then chain her to a bed for the entire birthing process. This practice is a disgusting outrage, and would have been ended by this year’s AB 568. Yesterday Governor Brown decided to veto this legislation. Unbelievable.

Expert Alicia Walters has more info here.

Making Sentencing Reform a Priority

Sign this ACLU-California petition at

Save Money and Increase Public Safety

To Governor Brown, Senate President Steinberg and Assembly Speaker Perez:

As you work to solve the long-term budget deficit, please make sentencing reform a top priority. Sentencing reform will help balance the budget, balance our priorities, and balance the scales of justice.

Two simple sentencing reforms would save California taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars annually:

  1. Make possession of small amounts of drugs a misdemeanor instead of a felony.
  2. Make low-level, non-violent property offenses misdemeanors instead of felonies.

These two reforms fit with your realignment plan by keeping state prison for violent and serious offenses. But they provide additional benefitslowering court costs, shortening sentences and saving both state and local dollars that can be used for public safety, drug treatment, social services and public schools and universities.

You have the power to bring back balance to the State of California.

Brown v. Plata Decision Analysis: Justice Kennedy’s Opinion of the Court

As per legal requirements, the Supreme Court reviewed the factual findings of the three judge panel using a standard of “clear error”, which allows them less leeway for intervention than in the legal findings, which are reviewed de novo. For this reason, the factual basis for the decision is quite familiar to those who read the original three-judge-panel order, but the legal analysis is rather extensive.

The decision outright rejects the state’s contention that the three judge panel was convened incorrectly, stating that the time that passed and the lack of relief necessitated this step. Documenting the standard of care, the abundant vacancies for medical and mental health staff, and the shortfall of resources, Justice Kennedy states that the court had waited long enough before recurring to this admittedly drastic step. Justice Kennedy supports and affirms the three-judge-panel conclusions that overcrowding was the dominant reason for the violations, as well as their conclusion, after considering many other options, that other remedial efforts had not borne fruit and therefore the only recourse would have to be reducing the population.

While the population reduction is of “unprecedented sweep and extent”, writes Justice Kennedy, “yet so too is the continuing injury and harm resulting from these serious constitutional violations.” Justice Kennedy devotes a large portion of the opinion to a detailed description of the overcrowded conditions, mentioning the San Quentin converted gym (the very first picture we posted on this blog.) He provides details of numerous incidents in which inmates received appalling mental and physical care. He also provides details of the history of both cases, Coleman and Plata, and how the various measures to which the state resorted throughout the years (including a special master for the mental health system and a federal receiver for the medical system) failed to improve conditions. In this part he relies extensively on data from the receiver and the special master, as well as in the three-judge-panel decision. His description of how overcrowding is a direct and indirect cause for the abysmal health care follows closely the original panel order, citing, among other factors, the unsanitary conditions and the reliance on lockdowns, both discussed extensively in the original order.

“To incarcerate, society takes from prisoners the means to provide for their own needs. Prisoners are dependent on the State for food, clothing, and necessary medical care. A prison’s failure to provide sustenance for inmates ‘may actually produce physical ‘torture or a lingering death’.’. . . Just as a prisoner may starve if not fed, he or she may suffer or die if not provided adequate medical care. A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society. . . [i]f the government fails to fulfill this obligation, the courts have a responsibility to remedy the resulting Eighth Amendment violation.”

As far as its practical implications, the decision is a mixed blessing. Readers looking for an unequivocal statement on behalf of decarceration will find its bottom line a bit more disappointing than it leads to believe. Justice Kennedy is cautious to mention, in the very opening paragraphs, that “[t]he order leaves the choice of means to reduce overcrowding to the discretion of state officials. But absent compliance through new construction, out-of-state transfers, or other means–or modification of the order upon a further showing by the State–the State will be required to release some number of prisoners before their full sentences have been served.” By framing the issue in this way, Justice Kennedy sets the stage for the state to avoid early releases by recurring to damaging, malignant techniques, which will only increase mass incarceration in the long run.

However, there are also more optimistic bits. Justice Kennedy seems fairly convinced by the evidence presented to the original panel about the possibility of reducing population without causing an increase in crime and endangering public safety. He also affirms the panel’s estimate as to the extent of the reduction. His words on that are a vote of confidence in the panel’s work, comparing their projection that a 137.5% capacity would be reasonable under the circumstances to the situation in other states and in the federal prisons.

Justice Kennedy is careful to cut the state some slack in the timing of its plan. He encourages the state to “move for modification of the . . . order to extend the deadline for the required reduction to five years from the entry of the judgment of this court, the deadline proposed in the State’s first population reduction plan. . . [t]he three-judge court, in its discretion, may also consider whether it is appropriate to order the State to begin without delay to develop a system to identify prisoners who are unlikely to reoffend or who might otherwise be candidates for early release.” For this purpose, an extension of time is encouraged. While some inmate advocates may scoff at this, it’s important to remember that, from now on, the state and the courts need to cooperate, and in the course of this long-term cooperation, many compromises will have to be made.

Roundup: CDCR Budget Cuts, Prison and Slavery

As many of you probably noticed, we’re posting with less frequency than usual these days; CCC will be on a mini-hiatus until late July due to an immense workload. We will, however, provide short updates on criminal justice policy and sentencing.

First, the Sacramento Bee reports that most of the personnel cuts in the Brown budget will be in corrections (a full list of cuts is available here.)

Also, recently, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, surprised the audience at a public talk with the sad fact that more Black men are currently imprisoned than were originally enslaved.

Props to Eric Chase and Leslie Davis for the links.

Less Gubernatorial Interference with Parole For Lifers Under Brown

More this morning from the Chron on the Era of Jerry: Governor Brown interferes with parole board recommendations of parole for lifers much less than his predecessor.

Brown has reviewed 130 decisions by the Board of Parole Hearings granting release to murderers sentenced to life with possible parole and has approved 106, or 81 percent, according to the governor’s office. He has vetoed 22 paroles and sent two back to the board for new hearings.

In comparison, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger approved about 30 percent of lifers’ paroles. Former Gov. Gray Davis – who declared early in his term that “if you take someone else’s life, forget it” – vetoed 98 percent of murderers’ parole cases he considered.

Now, here’s the nice bit, in which happily, facts somewhat trump the fear-mongering public-safety rhetoric:

For those who see crime as the overriding issue, Brown said, state records show that only a small fraction of the 900 life-sentenced prisoners paroled in the past 15 years have committed new crimes, compared with nearly 70 percent of other parolees.

Of course, even these cited statistics are presented in an inaccurate manner: The 70 percent non-lifer recidivists are, for the most part, parole violators, so their recidivism reflects not so much a return to a criminal career as the type of conditions they are subject to after release. A new report from Pew contains data that is sensitive to this breakdown. In 2004, for example, California’s 58% recidivism rate was comprise of 40% parole violators and only 18% commissions of new crimes. And, as the report states,

[i]n some states, released offenders who break the rules of their supervision are routinely punished with a short prison stay. California, for example, has for years taken this route, an approach that has helped to keep its prison population the highest in the nation.

Setting aside this misleading slant on recidivism rates, it is still refreshing to see Brown’s administration paying attention to lifers’ low recidivism rates without apologetic or panic-generating rhetoric. The low recidivism rates of lifers can be attributed to age as well as to the type of crime (murder does not tend to be an offense that generates recidivism.)

Brown Cancels Plans to Build New Death Row

The SF Chron reports:

Gov. Jerry Brown announced today that he is dropping plans to build a new $356 million Death Row at San Quentin because of the state’s budget crisis.

In a released statement, Brown said canceling the project – which has been in the works since 2003 – would save the state hundreds of millions of dollars. He said spending that money on a new Death Row while making budget cuts in other services would be “unconscionable.”

“At a time when children, the disabled and seniors face painful cuts to essential programs, the state of California cannot justify a massive expenditure of public dollars for the worst criminals in our state,” Brown said. “California will have to find another way to address the housing needs of condemned inmates.”

The new Death Row would have been able to house up to 1,152 condemned inmates. There are less than 700 people in state prison who have been sentenced to death.

Faithful readers may recall some twists and turns with the plan to rebuild death row. The construction was given the green light by former governor Schwarzenegger, but these plans were then halted through the efforts of progressive lawmakers that argued against the expenditure. The question is, of course: What now? Sixteen states have abolished the death penalty, several of them recently for cost reasons (humonetarianism at work here.) Governor Brown, would you like to save more money for our children, disabled and senior citizens? Join those states and abolish the death penalty.

Props to Christoffer Lee for the link.