Expectations were high when California rolled out public safety realignment in October 2011; many expressed optimism that the reform would significantly address prison overcrowding and reduce the state’s high recidivism rate.
Now that realignment is approaching the three-year mark, has the reform delivered? In some important ways, yes, it has. But a fundamental issue remains: the state still relies heavily on costly incarceration with limited crime preventive effects.
Realignment shifted responsibility for most lower-level felons from the state to the counties and reduced the state prison population by an impressive 27,000. Although most newly sentenced lower-level felons are serving their sentences in county jail instead of state prison, the majority of the prison population drawdown has been accomplished by essentially halting the practice of sending parole violators back to state prison. The one-year return-to-prison rate for released offenders has dropped by about 33 percentage points (from around 41% to about 8%).
Clearly some parole violators are serving time in county jails (there is no currently available statewide data on county sanctioning of parole or probation violations), but the reform’s stricter limit on how violations can be punished means that offenders now have more “street time.” Also contributing, counties now pay for sanctioning and many have limited jail space.
Importantly, our recent recidivism report shows that decreased reliance on incarceration as a sanction has not been accompanied by an increase in re-offending. In fact one-year re-arrest rates have come down by about 2 percentage points (from 61% to around 59%). In other words, significant reduction in the prison population and halting the use of prison as a sanction for parole violations and minor criminal offenses has moved corrections practices in the right direction in a very meaningful way.
However, the prison population is still above the federal limit, and it has recently started to increase. Furthermore, the reduction in the state prison population has been partially offset by an increase in the county jail population. The shift has put pressure on county jails, where the population has increased by about 11,000 since the October 2011 reform rollout and is continuing to grow.
In other words, the state prison system is still under pressure and now county jails face new challenges. Addressing these challenges solely by building more jails will be fiscally painful and is not likely to be a cost-effective way to prevent crime. Instead, the state needs to identify and implement alternative effective crime prevention strategies. This includes, as intended by the reform, targeted efforts guided by evidence-based practices to reduce re-offending. Among other things, this will require the state to support efforts to gather the data necessary to identify what works in California. But even if these efforts are successful, basic forces like population growth and fiscal stress are likely to force the state to consider sentencing reform and take a closer look at who we incarcerate and for how long.