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FAQ: Looking at the effects of California's prison realignment program

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The Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail and Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles.
Christopher Okula/KPCC
Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail.

In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s order to reduce overcrowding in California’s prisons, leading to significant changes in the state's criminal justice system.

About two years ago, Californians were introduced to a new term: realignment. It is the policy that shifted responsibility for thousands of criminals from the state’s prisons to the local level. KPCC’s Rina Palta has been covering realignment for years and created this handy FAQ:

Q: How did all of this get started again?

A: In May 2011, the US Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s order to reduce overcrowding in California’s state prison system. The court determined that California’s prisons were so overcrowded that it was impossible for the state to provide inmates with adequate mental health and medical care. The court ordered California to significantly lower its prison population.

Q: Why are prisons so overcrowded?

A: Nationwide, the prison population has skyrocketed over the last four decades. In 1971, there were about 200,000 people in federal and state prisons in the US. In 2009, it reached a peak of about 1.6 million. That’s been true in California as well—tougher sentencing laws, the war on drugs, all fed lots of people into the prison system. In this state, they tried to keep up with the population by building dozens of prisons. But ultimately, the money ran out, and there wasn’t enough space to safely accommodate everyone.

Q: What exactly is realignment?

A: When California got the order to rapidly reduce prison overcrowding, the state had two options: build a bunch of prisons to increase capacity or reduce the prison population. Because of time constraints, budget problems, and the Great Recession, the state opted to cut the prison population. And it did so by telling county governments to take over punishing certain kinds of crimes, like drug crimes and property crimes. The hope was this would shrink the prison population and also inspire county governments to come up with new ways of dealing with people that might help cut the state’s high recidivism rate.

Q: Has it worked?

A: Yes and no. The prison population has shrunk, but not quite enough to meet court-ordered deadlines. Because of that, California Governor Jerry Brown has asked the court for extensions. He’s gotten minor ones, but California needs a supplemental plan for about 10,000 inmates. Brown has contracted for thousands of prison beds in private facilities in other states. He’s also negotiating with the attorneys who brought the original lawsuit. They are trying to forge a plan that relies more on rehabilitation to reduce the numbers of people cycling in and out of prison. If they can’t come to an agreement, Brown may have to send more inmates to counties or release inmates early onto state parole.

Q: And what have been some of the side effects?

A: There’s a real lack of data so far on what this policy has led to. But everyone has a theory. A lot of law enforcement think the policy will lead to higher crime rates. There’s a lot of county jail operators who are dealing with overcrowding problems now that they’ve taken in more people. There has been some innovative work being done across the state in terms of figuring out alternatives to locking people up. Whether those things are working well or not is something we’ll learn over time. And then there have been some really high profile crimes committed by people who’ve been sentenced under the law. So there’s a lot of disjointed things happening—and we’re finally starting to see academics and policy makers putting it all together to evaluate the policy overall.

Another interesting side effect has been the impact on women prisoners.

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