The overhaul of California’s criminal justice system last year was billed as a way to get more felons into treatment and out of the vicious cycle of crime, prison and more crime.
So far, this has hardly been the case.
Most offenders who qualify for rehab services instead of incarceration under the state’s new realignment policy are still being sentenced to time behind bars, reports show. Only a fraction are ordered to programs that include mandatory drug counseling or job training.
Additionally, the majority of these offenders, because of the way the new policy works, don’t get supervision after their release from custody. This supervision was common before the realignment began.
These shortfalls are adding to concern that the restructured criminal justice system, nearly a year after its October start, may not live up to promises of rehabilitating criminals.
“Inmates are going to be coming out of custody unprepared, and they’re going to be more likely to reoffend,” said Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims. “This defeats the whole purpose of realignment.”
The realignment shifts responsibility for most nonviolent felons from the state to counties. (Violent offenders still go to state prison.) Gov. Jerry Brown saw it as a way to relieve the state’s overcrowded prison system and, on this front, it’s been a success. The prison population has shrunk by more than 15 percent.
Counties, it was expected, would do a better job of managing low-level criminals than the state, by offering treatment services tailored to local needs.
During the first six months of realignment, about 72 percent of the nearly 15,000 statewide offenders newly sentenced to counties instead of the state were given straight jail time, according to a recent report by the Chief Probation Officers of California.
That happens despite the fact that realignment allows judges to sentence low-level felons to terms in local probation programs. County probation departments are where the treatment services are run.
“I think judges are still stuck in the old mind-set where they say, ‘Hey, this guy deserves a harsher sentence,’ ” said Allen Hopper, who has studied the realignment and works as criminal justice director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.
Six percent of the state’s low-level offenders were sentenced to probation programs during the first six months of realignment, while 21 percent were sentenced to a combination of jail and probation, according to the recent report.
In addition, offenders serving their entire terms in county jails also don’t get supervision upon release. Had those inmates gone to state prison, as they would have before the realignment, many would have been monitored and assisted through state parole offices. But parole is no longer an option for these offenders.
“We can’t change that person’s behavior who is walking out of jail without having some sort of jurisdiction putting together plans to help them,” said Karen Pank, executive director of the Chief Probation Officers of California.
Pank and her organization are encouraging judges to sentence more low-level offenders to probation. That way, she said, they’re likely to get treatment as well as follow-up supervision once they’re on their own.
Many judges say it’s not that simple. Under the new policy, when a judge sentences an offender to a probation program, it eats up part of the total sentence, meaning less jail time. And that’s not necessarily what is warranted, they say.
“This is just part of the formula,” said Fresno Superior Court Judge Jon Conklin. “If a judge wants to give that person some supervision or services, they have to reduce the amount of custodial time that they would give.
“This is not our decision,” he added. “This is the Legislature reacting.”
The problem is especially acute in the San Joaquin Valley, where counties are handling more felons than had been expected under the prison realignment, according to the probation officers group.
The 12 counties between Kern County and San Joaquin County have been managing 8 percent more probationers, on average, than what the state projected they would under the realignment, the group says. Fresno County, for example, is supervising more than 1,100 additional offenders in its Probation Department, say county officials. The state had estimated less than 700 at this point.
By contrast, counties in the Bay Area and the Sacramento area have averaged 5 percent fewer offenders than what the state projected, according to the report.
In Fresno County, nearly 30 percent of offenders were sentenced to a probation program or a combination of probation and jail – instead of straight jail time – according to the recent report. That’s slightly above the state average of nearly 28 percent. But the percentages vary significantly from county to county, with some counties, such as Contra Costa, above 80 percent and others, such as Kern, closer to 10 percent.
Conklin called Fresno County’s numbers a good start. He said he expects the percentage of offenders going into probation to increase, not just because judges will see more benefit in probation programs but because the higher cost of locking people up may become too burdensome.
State officials overseeing the realignment said they are not in a position to comment on how judges are doing with the sentencing. They said it is a matter for each county to work out.
But California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Jeffrey Callison said that the new policy encourages counties to make use of alternatives to jail.
In Fresno County, the Probation Department, like other probation programs across the state, has begun to beef up its alternative services, from drug rehab to vocational assistance to daily check-in centers.
“We would like to get a shot at these offenders and get them into a program,” said Fresno County Chief Probation Officer Linda Penner. “We feel strongly that a period of intervention, some sort of program, is meaningful.”
Penner noted that the policy of realignment is not even a year old, and she’s optimistic that its effectiveness will improve with time.
“It’s still pretty early,” she said. “As programs strengthen and more alternatives are out there, I expect judges are going to have a higher comfort level and we’ll see more people in programs.”