By Don Thompson
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In response to a federal court order, Gov. Jerry Brown pushed a novel approach through the Legislature two years ago to dramatically reduce California's prison population.
People convicted of felonies that were considered non-violent, non-sexual and non-serious would serve their sentences in county jails rather than state prisons. Once released, they would be supervised by local probation officers instead of state parole agents.
The shift in California's penal system, referred to as "realignment," is one of the nation's largest criminal justice experiments and has done its job in at least one respect: The population in the state's 33 adult prisons has dropped so much that the system now ranks second to Texas in the number of inmates, even though Texas has 12 million fewer residents.
But the change has not come without criticism.
Many law enforcement officials, victims' rights groups and Republican lawmakers say crime has increased because of Brown's realignment law, as the wave of new inmates arriving in some county jails is leading to overcrowded conditions and the early release of dangerous felons.
Advocacy groups seized on preliminary FBI crime statistics to argue both sides of the issue.
Though still low in comparison to previous decades, property and violent crimes increased in 40 of California's 69 largest cities in the first six months of 2012, the largest such increase in 20 years, and the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation said realignment is clearly to blame.
But the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice said violent crime rates dropped in five counties that received a lion's share of the lower-level offenders who previously would have gone to state prisons, showing that counties can handle the influx without a corresponding rise in crime.
The law's opponents have highlighted individual cases such as a parole violator on early release who beat his girlfriend so badly she suffered brain damage and another charged with raping and killing his 76-year-old grandmother.
Inmates who serve time in county jails often are not being monitored at all after being set free, and the number of paroled sex offenders who are fugitives rose 15 percent after Brown's realignment law took effect. Moreover, the law firms that previously sued the state are now targeting counties for the same conditions that led to a federal court takeover of some state prison operations, oversight that has cost the state billions of dollars.
An expert who has been studying the prisoner shift, Stanford University law professor Joan Petersilia, said the policy is serving as a national experiment about whether prison populations can be reduced significantly without posing a threat to public safety.
More than 100,000 offenders have been affected by the law, which took effect in October 2011. More than $2 billion has been allocated by the state to help local governments handle their new responsibilities, while another $1.7 billion in state bonds is going to build more county jail space.
For all the upheaval, the frustration for Brown is that the shift of tens of thousands of prisoners still has not been enough to satisfy the panel of three federal judges.
The state had no choice but to reduce prison crowding after the judges ruled that it was the primary cause of unconstitutionally poor inmate medical and mental health care. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision in 2011, forcing the state to reduce its state inmate population.
The realignment law is responsible for reducing the state prison population by 25,000 inmates, to about 119,000. Yet the federal courts say another 9,300 must go by year's end and have threatened to hold Brown in contempt if he doesn't comply.
California prisons now hold 43,000 fewer inmates than they did at their peak in 2006 — a 25 percent drop. The inmate reduction is larger than the entire prison populations of 42 other states, according to the latest U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics figures.
"That's a historic change," said Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard, who took over California's system in January after heading Pennsylvania's prison system for nearly a decade. "It's huge. Nobody else in the nation has done that."
But the realignment law, known as Assembly Bill 109, has emboldened Republicans, the state's minority party. It passed without GOP support, and now those lawmakers are taking an I-told-you-so approach as they seek legislation to repeal or overhaul it.
"In every county of this state, citizens of California have suffered and been victimized by the AB109ers, as we call them," Republican state Sen. Jim Nielsen, who once headed the state's parole board, said during a recent Capitol news conference. "I'll argue (that) no bill ever passed by this Legislature has had more dire and severe and egregious consequences."
Some Democratic state lawmakers also say several problems need to be fixed, even as they support the overall goal of moving more offenders closer to rehabilitation services in the communities where they committed their crimes.
"I don't think you need to be seen as a bomb-thrower to be saying realignment, AB109, warrants tweaking," said freshman Assemblyman Ken Cooley, a Democrat from suburban Sacramento who is the author of two bills that would send some criminals back to state prisons instead of placing them in county jails. "I think that's the public policy conversation in California at this moment."
Much of the focus has been on two areas: the increase in long-term inmates now housed in jails, which were designed for short stays; and the ability of paroled sex offenders in some overburdened counties to remove their satellite-linked tracking devices with impunity.
Sheriffs and attorneys representing inmates' welfare say the long-term inmates are aggravating problems in overcrowded jails, where officials already were having trouble providing services to inmates with mental or physical illnesses or disabilities.
An Associated Press analysis earlier this year of figures from the state corrections department showed a nearly 60 percent increase in the number of warrants issued for fugitive paroled sex offenders under realignment.
Offenders now have less incentive to behave because the realignment law reduced the penalty for removing or disabling their ankle bracelets. Before, parole violators could have been sent back to state prison for up to a year. Now they can be sentenced to up to six months in county jails, but many are released within days because local jails are overcrowded.
Brown has said he is open to "tweaking" the law. But he also has said it is a responsible middle ground between the federal judges who want fewer criminals in the state's prisons and critics who say the state has gone too far.
"I think it's the boldest move in criminal justice in decades," Brown said, "and it's long overdue."
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Copyright 2013 Associated Press