May 18 2012
California Public Safety Realignment Act vs. Public Safety
In 2011, California’s Public Safety Realignment Act (AB 109) prevented the release tens of thousands of prisoners by sending “low level offenders,” or those convicted of “nonviolent,” “non-serious” and “non-sexual” crimes to county jails instead of state prison. The legislation follows a federal court order to reduce overcrowding in California’s prisons.
The reality of realignment in California is that it may threaten public safety. While the legislation was promoted as the best alternative to the release of the most prisoners, it nevertheless promises the release of certain offenders since counties must cap the number of criminals held in county jails, and many counties do not have adequate resources or funding to accommodate more people.
At the Association for Criminal Justice Research conference in Sacramento last March, concerned sheriffs noted that AB 109 was pushed out before counties had time to prepare. The Chief Corrections Officer for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department noted that the actual numbers of offenders coming from the prisons to the county far exceeds estimated numbers. In some cases, the number of anticipated offenders was double, as in rural Yolo County where the Chief Probation Officer reported that 37 new offenders were expected, but they had received 75 so far.
Moreover, California residents are undoubtedly misled by the notion that only the most benign offenders will now reside in local county jails. Assembly Bill 109 prevents new criminals from going to state prison even though some of these “non, non, nons” as they are called, have legitimately dangerous records. A report by the Associated Press showed than among the “non” offenses committed by those sent to county jails include involuntary manslaughter, killing or injuring a police officer while resisting arrest, participating in a lynching, possession of weapons of mass destruction, and using arson or explosives to terrorize a health facility or church, among others.
Before Realignment, Raoul Leyva, 33, would have served time for his parole violation in state prison. This month the Associated Press reported that Reyva was released from the San Joaquin County Jail only two days after he was ordered to serve 100 days for violating parole. Just under two weeks after his early release, Leyya was charged with beating his girlfriend, Brandy Arreola, in her Stockton apartment. Arreola, 20, remains hospitalized in critical condition.
Keeping “low risk” criminals out of prison means that California saves money, and Realignment proponents claim the legislation even presents an opportunity for innovation at the county level, but the key will be to test innovative programs on truly nonviolent offenders, assuming certain counties have the resources to do so. The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation has noted, however, that state funds to properly assess, supervise and treat offenders have been insufficient, and in the meantime it is likely that crime, and even violent crime will increase significantly under Realignment.
States should learn from California by recognizing the costs of incarceration and real rehabilitation to keep citizens safe. When times are tough as with California’s current budget woes, public safety suffers in the name of utility and savings.