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Revised Budget Resolves Major Criticism of Prison Realignment

by Lucas Eaves, published
Credit: California Dept. of Corrections & Rehabilitation

california prison realignment in may revised budget

Governor Brown's revised state budget -- released on Tuesday -- and its conservative approach to California's economic future were well-received, even by Republicans. The May revise also addresses growing concerns over the undesirable consequences of California prison realignment.

The revised budget includes a provision allowing the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to swap long-term inmates from county jails back to state prisons if counties accept an equivalent population of short-term offenders. This is the first major change of policy in realignment since efforts began in 2011 and should fix one of the major criticisms of prison realignment.

Brown's realignment plan has received more heat in recent months as the state continues its legal fight over court-ordered prison population reduction. Last week, former lieutenant governor and Brown's future challenger in 2014, Abel Maldanado, announced that he started a petition to create a ballot initiative that would repeal prison realignment.

One major critique has been over the increasing number of inmates with long sentences sent to county jails. In 2011, realignment was designed to send low-level offenders, with no longer than three years left to serve, from state prisons to county jails.

However, a 2013 report by the California State Sheriffs’ Association revealed that 1,100 inmates with 5-10 year sentences and 44 serving a sentence longer than 10 years were in county jails.

This raises two main issues. First, county jails are designed to hold inmates sentenced for a short period of time and, as a consequence, do not have the medical, mental health, disability, and work programs required of state prisons. County law enforcement officials are worried this could open the door to new lawsuits over violations of inmate rights.

The second issue is that like state prisons, jails are overcrowded. To be able to receive thousands of inmates from the state system, counties often have to shorten sentences. As a consequence, serious offenders could be released earlier which raises concerns over public safety.

To resolve this problem, Senator Bill Emmerson (R-Redlands), introduced a bill in 2012 that would have ensured that felons with sentences longer than three years would spend these years in state prisons. However, the bill was rejected in committee.

He reintroduced a similar bill earlier this years, SB 225, but it stalled again in committee because many Democratic lawmakers believe it is "wrong to roll back any part of realignment in light of federal court orders to reduce the state’s prison population."

The inclusion of a nearly identical provision in the revised budget for May should be received positively by those who believe Brown's prison realignment plan needed to be fixed. This solution is also compliant with the federal court decision, according to Finance Director Ana J. Matosantos.

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