Briefing Report: Realignment Reexamined

Two Years Later California's Criminal Justice Realignment Shows Its Gaps
Wednesday, March 20, 2013

“There’s no doubt that if you let people out of prison you increase the potential of crime.”
- Governor Jerry Brown (Los Angeles Times, January 8, 2013)

Looking Back

In 2011, California set in motion a new criminological experiment by shifting responsibility for thousands of felony offenders from state to local control. At the time, the “historic” criminal justice realignment plan was hailed as a change that would “give local law enforcement the right and the ability to manage offenders in smarter and cost-effective ways.”[1] However, this was not a “right” or “ability” that local jurisdictions were clamoring to receive. Not only had they opposed this type of shift for years but many local law enforcement agencies were already facing challenges of their own in the form of steep budget cuts, limited jail space and, in some cases, court ordered population caps.[2] Despite these challenges, and over Republican objections, the Democrat majority and Governor constructed and passed an elaborate plan to save state dollars while shirking the state’s historic responsibility to incarcerate individuals convicted of felony criminal offenses. Estimates from the plan projected that by 2015 the result would be a shift of roughly 30,000 convicted felons from state prisons to county jails, more than 50,000 offenders from state parole to county probation and a state savings of as much as $1.5 billion.

Although the realignment plan was clear on offenders being shifted to local jurisdictions and the objective of state savings, it was unclear on just how local jurisdictions were actually supposed to manage this huge influx of habitual and often dangerous offenders with reduced funding while maintaining safe communities. Even though this was unmistakably the most significant change in criminal justice policy in over thirty years, there was no intent or plan by the state to provide oversight, study the effects on the criminal justice system or even to track basic information regarding these new offenders. Essentially each county was on its own, save for a few new statutory provisions that primarily expanded early release options, short sentences were authorized as deterrents and inmates were granted additional sentence credits.

New Crime Data

Two years later, the state is still blindly conducting this risky experiment on the communities of California with some troubling results. After years of steady decline, crime rates are on the rise in California. A recent report by the State Attorney General noted that in the fourth quarter of 2011, immediately after realignment was first implemented, California experienced a 4.5 percent year over year increase in property crimes even after the first three quarters of the same year showed a 2.4 percent decrease.[3] This news was followed in January with the release of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s preliminary crime statistics for the first six months of 2012, the first full year since realignment was enacted. During that period, nine of California’s largest law enforcement agencies reported increases in murder, rape, robbery, and theft. Combining these figures with the almost weekly stories reported by California news agencies profiling serious criminal activities by realigned felons and an unfortunate picture begins to emerge.

Many supporters of realignment have been quick to defend the policy in light of this new information. They point out that one year of data does not constitute a trend, that other states also had varying increases in crime and that some California jurisdictions had crime increases or decreases which appear unrelated to the number of realigned offenders. While the preliminary data does not provide a definitive trend, we do know that something happened in California last year to cause a sharp increase in virtually every major category of crime. When compared nationally or to other large states such as Florida, Texas, and New York, California's statewide increase has been very dramatic across the board. It is nearly impossible not to recognize that these shifts in crime exactly coincide with the implementation of realignment.

Fixing Realignment?

Unfortunately, even with many law enforcement agencies describing realignment as dangerous and evidence mounting that it may have serious flaws, the Democrat controlled Legislature has scant desire or ability to undo this Gordian knot. With the passage of Proposition 30 in November 2012 and the ongoing limitations on state incarceration resulting from the United States Supreme Court decision in Plata v. Brown[4], California is all but locked into this disastrous policy unless lawmakers demonstrate the courage to make changes.

In fact, Republicans introduced several changes last year but they were all defeated by Democrats in committee on party line votes. Determined to make the safety of the public a top priority for the state, Republicans have again proposed a package of twelve new measures[5] designed to improve realignment and address some of its fundamental shortfalls:  primarily that the state needs to appropriately house and supervise dangerous offenders while adequately funding local governments to mitigate the negative public safety impacts of realignment on their communities.

Moving Forward

It seems increasingly likely that, unless realignment is properly funded and fixed, the result will be a continued increase in crime rates. Yet, this is not the only problem that could arise at the local level. As more convicted felons are shifted, the litigation currently hamstringing the state over medical and other inmate conditions could also expand to local jurisdictions.  Realignment has already severely impacted the ability of some counties to appropriately house and treat local jail inmates. The State Sheriffs Association recently released a survey showing that some offenders are receiving incredibly long terms in county jails which were almost universally designed for short term, low level incarceration.[6] If these types of issues remain, it may be inevitable that more local jurisdictions engage in costly legal battles which end in additional court oversight or forced early release programs.

The good news is that while many proponents still cling to the idea that it is infallible, the momentum to fix realignment is building. The news reports continue to highlight the many flaws of this plan on a nearly weekly basis. Even Democrat lawmakers who originally voted for the plan have been forced to recognize that it has “unintended consequences” while others have introduced their own measures to fix realignment echoing Republican concerns and stating that “prison simply can't be off the table” for some of these offenders.[7]

For more information on this report or other public safety issues, contact Eric Csizmar, Senate Republican Office of Policy at 916/651-1501.

[1] “Governor Brown Signs Legislation To Improve Public Safety and Empower Local Law Enforcement” Office of Governor Jerry Brown, April, 5, 2011
[2] Data from the California State Sheriffs Association suggest that 17 counties have a state or federal population cap on their jails. However, in 2010 the California State Association of Counties noted that 32 county jails were operating under a court ordered or self-imposed population cap due to space limitations.
[3] “California Law Blamed for Crime Rise” Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2013
[4] In Plata v. Brown the U.S. Supreme Court held that federal district court did not err in concluding that overcrowding in California prisons was the primary cause of the continuing violations of prisoner’s constitutional rights to adequate health care. The court further noted that the evidence supported the conclusions of the three-judge panel including the necessity of a state prison population limit given that the population limit was narrowly drawn, extended no further than necessary to correct the violation, and was the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation.
[5] AB 2 (Morrell), AB 63 (Patterson), AB 605 (Linder), AB 1084 (Melendez), AB 1321 (Jones), AB 1334 (Conway), SB 144 (Cannella), SB 225 (Emmerson), SB 226 (Emmerson), SB 287 (Walters) SB 708 (Nielsen) and SB 710 (Nielsen)
[6] At the extreme end one individual in Los Angeles County received a 42 year term in county jail.
[7] “Legislators Challenge Realignment with New Wave of Bills” Sacramento Bee, March 8, 2013