California leads the nation in correctional reforms. It has dramatically reduced incarceration and done so without a major increase in crime rates, a new PPIC report concludes. But the state and counties still faces major challenges. A panel of state and local experts discussed them in Sacramento last week. Among some of the challenges:
- Preventing the prison population from increasing. Under federal court order to reduce prison overcrowding, California enacted public safety realignment and quickly reduced the prison population to about 200,000 inmates. But Scott Kernan, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said it may be a challenge to keep the number of inmates below the court-mandated target. Based on population projections, the prisons will run out of available beds soon, he said.
- Continuing to improve prison health care. California continues to operate under a court-ordered federal receivership. Although the state has invested significantly to improve inmate health services, the receiver has turned over management of health care to the state at only 7 of the state’s 34 prisons. Kernan said the state is on a path toward full control.
- Adapting to changing jail populations. The counties—sheriffs, probation departments, and the courts—have had to quickly adjust, first to an increase in their populations under realignment, then to an decrease under Proposition 47, which reduced penalties on some drug and property crimes. Today, jails built for short stays now house more serious offenders for longer periods. Probation departments had to quickly build relationships with community organizations to develop reentry services, said Wendy Still, Alameda County’s chief probation officer. “What I think is amazing,” she said, “Is just how fast the counties were able to make this shift and to be able to create the partnerships, to break down the barriers and begin to create these systems of care—and also to retrain their staffs.”
- Understanding the impact of Proposition 47 on crime rates. The PPIC report says the impact of Proposition 47 on crime is not yet clear. Geoff Dean, Ventura County sheriff, argued that it has been significant and that it has clogged courts. He and Still both said that by reducing some felony drug offenses to misdemeanors, Proposition 47 removed incentives for offenders with substance abuse problems to get treatment. Before Proposition 47, certain offenders convicted of felonies went to drug court as an alternative to traditional prosecution, and they were required to get treatment. Misdemeanor offenders don’t face the same sanctions. “There’s a whole segment of that population that’s not getting treatment,” he said. “And the cycle continues.”
Panelists echoed the conclusions of PPIC report coauthor Magnus Lofstrom. The state and counties need to identify and implement cost-effective strategies to reduce re-offending—to reduce pressures on prisons and jails, improve public safety, reduce spending, and improve the lives of those in the corrections system and their families.