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Adult realignment and the county jail building boom

Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union released an insightful, comprehensive report on county plans for a massive jail expansion using funding allocated through Assembly Bill 109 and Assembly Bill 900.   AB 109 is the adult realignment bill that shifted responsibility for supervising low-level offenders (non-non-non's) from the state to the county level along with $367 million for first-year implementation.  Adult realignment in California comes at time when public opinion is shifting in support of more cost-effective alternatives to incarceration.  A recent Pew research poll shows that voters are also highly attuned to community-based supervision practices that support rehabilitation and long-term reducing in recidivism for low-level offenders.

Yet current county plans for adult realignment are directed away from evidence-based alternatives to incarceration and towards a massive statewide jail expansion project that will be paid for into the distant future by California's taxpayers.

A Stanford Law School and ACLU survey of the county plans for implementation of AB 109 reveals that 24 of the 25 largest California counties plan on using realigned state funding to pay for dramatic expansions of jail beds.  Combined, these 25 counties received 92% of the total state allocation (or $327 million) from adult realignment.  This number obscures the true amount that new jail construction will cost California taxpayers as counties start to draw down from the $7.3 billion in state revenue bonds allocated under AB 900 back in 2009.  Including interest on these bonds, the eventual cost to California taxpayers will exceed $19 billion, not withstanding additional costs statewide to taxpayers if counties default on their bond payments.

As the ACLU report notes, "Counties that have chosen a path of jail expansion - as many of the Big 25 county realignment plans indicate they have - are trying to solve the wrong problem.  They seek to absorb the realigned population without changing their local approaches to public safety."    

The report goes on to highlight many best-practice examples in California and across the nation where pretrial services, alternative sentencing programs, risk and needs assessments, and community-based services are employed to improve the life outcomes of lower-level offenders and reducing recidivism.   Examples from the California counties of Napa, Santa Cruz, San Diego, Madera, Alameda, Santa Clara, and Butte highlight some of the local creativity probation departments are employing to improve individual outcomes for offenders and increasing long-term public safety.  

The report also highlights national models to address the large number of inmates in local county jails that are not sentenced, or "pretrial". As CJCJ and others have highlighted in the past, data from the California Standards Authority that an average of 71% of the inmates in county jails have not been sentenced and many are awaiting their first hearing.  The ACLU report describes innovative and successful practices in Baltimore, Camden, and Washington DC where use of validated risk-assessment tools, pretrial release programs, and pretrial community programming dropped local pretrial jail populations by as much as 80% and had a 94% success rates of supervisees appearing for their scheduled court date.

Due to disparities in sentencing practices in California's 58 counties, adult realignment necessitates a reconsideration of established sentencing practices and the development of a broader array of community sanctions.  Realignment presents a vast opportunity for innovation and data-driven practices at the local level.  It is time to reduce California's overreliance on incarceration and look to local best practices that improve long-term public safety and better outcomes for offenders. 

Keywords: AB 109, Brian Heller de Leon, jails, overcrowding, pretrial

Posted in Blog, Realignment, Justice by Geography

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