Jury Out on Prisoner Early Release

If it works, realignment will save the state billions while satisfying the federal courts.

The jury is still out on whether Democratic Governor Jerry Brown's plan to alleviate crowding at the state's prisons will work for local governments as well as the state.

Under what Brown describes as "realignment," thousands of offenders who might previously have ended up in state prison are being placed in county jails or other programs in order to meet a mandated June 2013 deadline for reducing the prison population by 30,000. (See note at bottom.)
This change comes about as the result of several federal court decisions on over-crowded state prisons with poor medical facilities.

California has no time to waste with the new program; the state must reduce its prison population by mid-2013.

The idea behind realignment is that local governments have capacity the state lacks to house non-violent prisoners at a lower cost. If it works, realignment will save the state billions while satisfying the federal courts.

But is it working?

Early reports are mixed.

Some counties have room for extra prisoners and have used the additional funds from the state to improve their jails. Other counties already operate with their own over-crowded jails and find themselves even more inundated with additional prisoners.

In fact, more than half of the state's counties suffer from the same kind of over-crowding that has plagued the state.

Under Brown's plan, the counties will be compensated for taking on additional prisoners. Brown and the legislature allocated $425 million for realignment in the current budget and have set aside $850 million in the 2012-2013 budget, saving the state about $1.5 billion in the process.

Still, some counties are burdened not only by their own over-populated jails but a series of other problems ranging from facilities not designed for long-term populations to post-incarceration supervision of non-violent released prisoners.

Much is stake with the prison realignment experiment.

If it succeeds, the program can serve as a model for California off-loading other expensive programs to local governments; services for the elderly, childrens' health, and public education are some examples that come to mind. In each case, the "value" would come from placing services in the hands of those closest to them.

Even then, however, two lingering questions would remain: whether state funds would be guaranteed and whether the locally-administered programs would provide roughly the same benefits from county to county.

Meanwhile, prisoner realignment is in the beginning stages of implementation, which means there are lots of opportunities to correct any issues that arise.

If it works, there may be great cost savings. However, if it's the latest version of "pass the buck," then the counties may well become the recipients of the same problems that plagued the state for so many years.

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Note: Sentence used to read "Under what Brown describes as "realignment," about 30,000 state prisoners are being relocated to county jails. The Department of Correction media spokesperson asked us to be clear that the 30,000 number is a reduction in inmate population. Not all of them will be moved to county jails.

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