SACRAMENTO — As federal judges pressured California to relieve prison overcrowding in 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown pushed lawmakers to send tens of thousands of parolees and lower-level offenders to counties.
The realignment plan enabled the state to reduce its prison population by 25,000 inmates and balance its cash-strapped budget. But it has disappointed advocates who had hopes that counties would reduce California’s notoriously high rate of inmates who commit crimes soon after hitting the streets.
Parolees monitored by counties under realignment have been arrested for new crimes at the same rate as when the state supervised similar offenders, The Sacramento Bee found in an analysis of state data. Some 60 percent of parolees released to counties from October 2011 through September 2012 were arrested for new offenses within 12 months of leaving prison, the same rate as a comparable population of parolees managed by the state the year before the law took effect.
County officials point to several factors that have compromised their ability to change the state’s cycle of crime.
Limited jail space for parole violators means that counties must release some inmates early. Probation officers have high caseloads, which prevent them from monitoring parolees as closely as they would like.
And while state funding has helped expand jail operations and increase the number of probation officers, counties say they haven’t received enough money from the Capitol to provide sufficient rehabilitation programs.
Leaders at the California State Association of Counties, the Chief Probation Officers of California and the California State Sheriffs’ Association say they need more money for job training, mental health care and substance abuse treatment.
But criminal justice critics say county leaders could have spent more of their new money on rehabilitation.
In the first year of realignment, counties budgeted 16 percent of the $367 million they received from the state for services such as mental health and drug treatment, according to a report last year by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center.
“Far too many counties have given the money to sheriffs to build out the jail population,”said Alan Hopper, director of the ACLU’s criminal justice and drug policy project in California. “Far too many counties have not taken to heart the intention and promise of realignment to address the root causes of crime.”
The state’s prisons chief, Jeffrey Beard, cautioned against early evaluations of realignment. No state has attempted a similar shift in correctional responsibilities, and counties still are coming up with programs after a little more than two years, he said.
“We need more time,” Beard said. “I’m very hopeful.”
In his latest state budget Thursday, Brown called for $81 million to go toward re-entry centers, mental health services and drug treatment for offenders. The proposal, however, depends on the state getting a two-year extension from federal judges handling the prison overcrowding case. Otherwise, Brown plans to spend the money to pay for prison beds.
County leaders say they will lobby for more money to treat inmates and parolees. State budget surpluses are expected over the next few years.
But counties will have to compete with a host of programs that suffered budget cuts during the recession. The state is obligated to spend a large share of additional revenue on K-12 schools and community colleges, and legislative Democrats want to create a universal pre-kindergarten program. Public universities and social service advocates are clamoring for more money than Brown proposed giving them.
One reason for California’s high rate was its unusually strict parole policy – everyone released from prison was placed under supervision for three years and returned for any violation, according to the Pew report.