Cal jails see increased violence since Realignment?

Screen shot 2012-11-04 at 6.14.22 PMDec. 2, 2013

The media is having a field day quoting anonymous sources, arguing that an increase in jail violence in California Jails is due to the more violent offenders who would have been placed in prison, and now being placed in California jails under Realignment Reform.

The story is accurate as far as it goes but it doesn’t necessarily go far enough. The combined population In the 10 largest county jails grew 14 percent through 2012 while inmate-on-inmate assaults rose 32 percent and inmate-on-staff assaults rose 27 percent. Clearly a significant increase.

But when you look behind the numbers, you find some obvious and even some unsuspected causes.

1. When you put more offenders in a jail (as in a prison), there will be more violence as the overcrowding causes an increase in tension and violence (remember the experiments with rats in a cage from high school). The fact is that while some jails are experiencing greater violence, jail population is up; prison populations are down and prison violence is down.

“Simultaneously, the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation saw a 15 percent drop in inmate-on-inmate assaults within state prisons, while attacks on employees dropped 24 percent as the prison population dramatically declined last year, according to statistics obtained through a separate public records request by the AP.” (NBC News)

2. Jails aren’t designed for long term offenders. If you put those with ten year sentences in a jail (as realignment allows), there will be consequences. But that ignores the very purpose of Prison Realignment. In pre-realignment times, counties dumped their bad boys and girls in state prisons far from home where they wouldn’t have to deal with them for as long as the county judge sent them up for. It was a free ride, the state picked up the tab and a lot of counties took full advantage of that. Realignment is bringing accountability and financial responsibility back to the sentencing county where it ought to be.

3. Following  up on Point 2, Realignment was designed to encourage county judges to split prison sentences and use alternatives to incarceration whenever appropriate. Those sentenced to prison, yet placed in county jail (I know, it can be hard to get a hold of that concept), would receive a portion of the sentence in jail and the rest in what is euphemistically called “mandatory supervision”,  (another way of describing probation for the serious offender). What was envisioned was judges using split sentencing to transition offenders from jail into the community under supervision, where alternatives to incarceration would be available to the offender The last statistics I’ve seen suggest that the courts are not up to the task. Except for some outstanding exceptions (Santa Clara, San diego, and a few more), sentenced prisoners get straight jail sentence more than eighty percent of the time. And when a judge does that, the sentence is final, and the offender remains in jail for the full term.

So when you read about how California Realignment isn’t working, it’s a good  idea to read down to the bottom of the article, for a fuller picture “Sacramento County was the only one to see a decrease in inmate-on-inmate assaults, while Alameda, Los Angeles and Santa Clara counties saw declines in assaults on staff.”

This is a work in progress that many would like to roll back. While Realignment is unlikely to go away, the big push is to build jails that are virtual prisons. Watch for it.


California Realignment gets Mixed Reviews

Sept.9, 2013

Screen Shot 2013-09-09 at 8.28.52 PMOver the summer, I followed the flow of prison reform news and found that one of the biggest stories of the year, continued to command the attention of the criminal justice field: California’s bold experiment with realignment. For those who haven’t been following the issue, realignment is simple in concept; those who do not commit violent, serious , or sex crimes do not go to prison, no matter how egregious the offense is supposed to be. It’s reduced the number of prisoners in California from approx.145,000 to under 120,000.

But the controversy over the reform has heated up over the summer. Law enforcement continues to demand more prison beds (translation: more prisons)  for non-serious offenders, the Supreme Court ordered Governor Brown to release 10,000  more prisoners (the reason for realignment in the first place was the Court’s finding that California’s prison overcrowding amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment”, recent research released describes realignment as working and not working. Rather than explore these issues now; let me suggest you follow them yourself, by checking my “Reentry Court Solutions” Facebook Page where relevant articles on the “Courts and Reentry”, include articles on “California Realignment”.

I will try to start off this fifith year on a positive note. Last year I visited and interviewed three counties that took very different approaches to their county’s “Realignment” responsibilities. They all appeared to show substantial potential for success with offenders sentenced to prison, who were to serve little time in local custodial institutions. With one last look backward, here are three county realignment models (as they were being structured in October of 2012), ranging from a highly involved court to one that hardly engaged “Realignment” at all.

[Note: I will be returning to the three counties (described below) this year and hope to provide  an update on their progress]

Judges and Post-Sentencing Discretion

The Best Of: Published in April of 2013, this article delves into the thinking of judges who are being given post sentencing jurisdiction over serious felons, and analyzes the relative absence of judicial involvement in  post sentence decision-making.

Screen Shot 2013-04-15 at 11.08.02 PMRecently there was a tragedy in Colorado that exposed the vulnrbility of the judge in sentencing matters. A violent and mentally ill offender was sentenced to 8 years in prison and an additional  4 years for assaulting a prison official. That same offender killed two men within a month of his direct release into the community from administrative custody (solitary confinement). One of the men murdered was the Director of Corrections, Tom Clement (photo image on left). That single parolee has temporarily slowed the movement in Colorado toward prison reform.

The issue faced by the courts and judiciary in sentencing offenders, is whether they should  remain involved with the offender until he or she completes both the sentence and post-sentence supervision. If you are the sentencing judge or a judge involved in post-sentecing  decision-making, you may come to regret  a decision that the public comes to see as a mistake.

It is one reason that judges are reluctant to engage returning offenders from prison or reduce prison terms as allowed by statute. Judges can and should be a part of a process to move an offender from prison into post-prison rehabilitation and supervision in the community. But the agencies and institutions responsible for preparing the prisoner for release and the the supervising authority in charge of the offender once released  must have the resources, expertise, and commitment  to make the post sentence release work for the community, the court and the offender.

To put it simply, if the sentencing process, the custodial experience, or the release process are seen as inadequate, the court and judge maybe be vulnerable to a  backlash that could cost the judge his or her job.. It is that reason, among others, that hold many judges back from releasing offenders early or getting involved in post sentence supervision of offenders.

In the case of the alleged Colorado murderer. he was recognized as someone with a serious mental problem and a danger to the community. His mental illness and violent tendencies were so severe that he spent the last two years of his sentence in isolation. There are unanswered questions at this time as to the nature, intensity and quality of the treatment and services provided after he was sentenced, and the lack of transitional housing and intensive supervision when he was released [there is some issue as to the court and/or judge’s error in sentencing the offender, but any court/judge error was not post-sentence]

This issue goes far beyond the tragedy in Colorado. Many states (including West Virginia, where judges have new discretion under prison reform legislation) allow their judges to alter prison terms or add supervision terms to released offenders.California has put in place one of the most progressive sentencing and prison reform processes in the nation. Offenders who are sentenced on non-violent, non-serious offenses to prison, actually serve their sentences in county jail. If the sentencing judge wishes to, he or she can maintain jurisdiction over the offender while in custody and  reduce the custodial term and/or order probation supervision for the offender when released into the community

Even though this discretion exists, over 80% of California’s eligible offenders are sentenced to straight custody, with no probation or supervisory term attached. Judges are clearly reluctant  to accept discretion to resentence or reduce a prison term or attach probation and/or other continuing judicial supervision.

It is unclear whether different custody conditions  or treatment would have made a difference in the Colorado case. But the involvement of the court in post-sentencing is a fundamental change  that should not be abandoned because of the court’s fear of reprisals. It is only through the courts effective partnering in post-sentencing systems, that we can provide  the improvement  in sentencing outcomes we so desire. I’ll have more to say about this issue on next weeks website (see 12 part article on sentencing systems).


Realignment Boosts Sentencing System Reform




The Best Of: This article, first published on September 24, 2012, describes how Realignment , a reform that requires counties to keep less-serious offenders in-county to serve prison sentences, is being modeled in California.

Realignment, as prison reform, is having an major impact in the development of countywide evidence-based “sentencing systems”. No where is that effect greater than California, where the state is heavily relying on realignment to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court  order to reduce severe prison over-crowding (see NYT: In Califronia, County Jails face bigger load)

California’a AB109 Realignment Strategy has two important aspects:

1) Those sentenced to prison on less serious offenses (typically called triple nons; non-violent, non-serious, non-sex offenses), will be housed in county jails (when sentenced to prison) and supervised by county probation departments on LCS (Local Community Supervision). These individuals may not be sent to prison. Instead, they may be sentenced to a straight jail sentence (equivalent to the term they would have served in prison) or they may be sentenced to a split sentence term.  This is where the enormous potential of California’s realignment (AB109) comes into play. The court has the discretion to split the sentence between jail and LCS in ways it determines to be appropriate. The court maintains jurisdiction over the offender and may monitor the offenders progress over the course of the entire sentence; reducing a jail sentence and releasing the offender into the community to be supervised under LCS, or returning the offender to jail to complete part or all of the term upon substantial LCS violation. The degree of court discretion and involvement in the monitoring and supervision of the felon can be extraordinary, perhaps greater than that of any other state. Counties are required to develop collaborative strategies with probation, sheriff’s departments and other agencies and community based organizations, with the potential to maximize the impact of the court, while utilizing the resources and involvement of all collaborating organizations.

2) Starting in July, 2013 , those released from prison will be retained in the community, under Post Release Community Supervision (PRCS),  while under the jurisdiction of the County Superior Court, supervised by probation, to be returned to jail rather than prison when there are violations of parole. Unless they come under a very limited exception for dangerous and violent offenders, they will not be place on parole, revoked under the authority of the state parole board or returned to prison (a limited program currently exists statewide).

These two provisions provide a major opportunity for communities to create evidence-based sentencing systems, that utilize the courts, as part of a comprehensive and seamless sentencing system. Eveyone should be paying attention to what California Courts are doing with their new jurisdiction and sentencing discretion. (see:“A Model Court Based Sentencing System”)

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