The plan to realign the incarceration system serves multiple purposes such being more cost efficient, complying with a Supreme Court order to reduce the prison population, and lowering the percent of recidivism, which is currently the highest in the nation.
This is much more ambitious than simply the oft-repeated argument to help address the fiscal crisis. The Public Safety Realignment Act (AB109), requires that prisoners who have been convicted of low-level, non-violent and non-sexual offenses complete their sentence in local rather than state prisons. The counties have received almost $400 million with the hope of receiving up to a billion annually to make the necessary preparations.
The problem is that, in most counties, these funds are being used to continue the same old policy of placement of the incarcerated that led the state prison system to fail in the first place.
A recent study by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “Public Safety Realignment: California at a Crossroads”, finds that most of the plans for realignment in the 53 counties studied focus disproportionately on building new prisons rather than on rehabilitation through programs addressing mental health, drug treatment and vocational training.
There is no question that overpopulation is a problem our county’s jails. It is estimated that more than 50,000 of the 71,000 Californians being held in county jails are waiting to be processed and are kept there simply because they cannot afford bail. For the ACLU this is due to the fact that there is no assessment of the actual threat of detainees prior to their day in court including ignoring in some cases the use of alternatives to incarceration such as electronic monitoring among others. Los Angeles is one of the counties that employs these options.
Realignment plans will save money from the state’s hard-hit coffers but for more impact, these plans need to be accompanied by efforts to standardize bail across the state, change in sentencing practices, and modify the current formula by which realignment is financed so as to incentivize the use of alternatives to the building of more prisons.
We believe that public safety comes first and dangerous individuals should be locked up behind bars. But there also needs to be other options. Alternatives to imprisonment reduce costs and rehabilitation programs help lower the current 65% recidivism. The state should take advantage of this fiscal crisis to make important changes in the approach to incarceration. To do otherwise is simply to repeat the same failures of our prison system.