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Will realignment cut costs and reduce California's prison population?

The most definitive answer I heard to this question at today's panel  on Realignment, sponsored by the Warren Institute on Law and Policy at UC Berkeley, was  "no one knows."  The outcomes of criminal justice realignment are still unclear as it recently went into effect October 1st.  Other factors include the difficulties in knowing how many offenders realignment will actually affect due to the specificity of offender categories outlined for local supervision and "justice by geography."   By this, Barry Krisberg, criminologist and President of the Warren Institute, is referring to the drastic differences between California's 58 counties' sentencing practices, jail capacities, and availability and commitment to alternative sanctions and community services. 

A point stressed today was that realignment is first and foremost a fiscal measure developed  through the budget process, not the legislative process which would have required more public input.   It costs the state $55,000 to house an inmate in state prison each year and under realignment, counties receive $20,000 per inmate/year to supervise locally.  By the numbers, this appears to be a cost-saving measure for the state, but when examining the details  it becomes less clear.  (For a nuts and bolts on realignment, see my previous blog and visit the California realignment website.)  The range in panelists' speculations on the ability of realignment to reduce prison population and ultimately corrections costs, fluctuated between "a decrease but not enough to reduce overcrowding," a stabilization of the population, and even an eventual rise in population, which would lead to a rise in costs.  

1).  The estimated number of inmates realignment is likely to affect is 26,000 but even if California's prison population were to decrease over the next few years, it would still be below the 33,000 ordered reduction in the Brown v. Plata Supreme Court decision to reduce overcrowding.  Additionally, if CDCR does find a way to reduce the population by 33,000 the system would still be over 100% capacity.

2). Only the non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual offenders with NO prior non-non-non status will have the opportunity for local supervision instead of state prison.    This population may be smaller than expected because even though someone's commitment offense may be drug-related (non-non-non), it is not unlikely that in their past they were involved in more criminal activity.  The "no prior non-non-non" specification includes any previous offense, even if it was committed 30 years ago.   In addition, counties, such as Alameda and San Francisco, were already supervising this population at the local level and therefore would not contribute to significant reductions in state prison populations.  

3).  Krisberg suggests the real source of overcrowding is "driven by length of stay, not admissions."    His concern is that after lower level offenders are diverted locally, 45,000-60,000 offenders serving life sentences will continue to be housed in state prisons.  In order to make sustainable budget cuts, the supervision of those serving life sentences, must be examined because this aging population is the most costly.  

The hope is that by diverting inmates to local supervision, counties will have more incentive to create innovative sanctions and utilize community reentry services.   It is important that conversations regarding realignment focus on the facts rather than skewed media reports, as this can provide more opportunity for local acceptance of this population and ultimately a focus on rehabilitative options. 

Keywords: Emily Luhrs, jails, population management, prisons

Posted in Blog, Realignment

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