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by Matthew Green
Last October California began a dramatic overhaul of its severely overcrowded prison system. Assembly Bill 109 — known as realignment — had the objective of shedding more than 30,000 inmates from in-state prisons and significantly cutting the prison budget. At the time the law took effect, there were more than 143,000 inmates behind bars in California's 33 prisons - about 190 percent of the system's design capacity.
Meanwhile, California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) received about $10 billion a year from the state's thinning general fund – over 11 percent of last year's entire spending plan. That's more than was spent on the University of California and California State University systems combined.
So what's happened since last October?
Since October, when realignment began, most "non-serious, non-violent, non-sex offenders" (as defined by the California's Penal Code) have been sentenced to county jails or put in locally-run probation programs. The program shifts a huge amount of criminal justice responsibility and power from the state to the local level. Prior to last October, every county came up with it's own individualized plan for how it would handle a potential increase in inmates and parolees. Each county then received an allotment of state funding based on its specific plan and the projected number of new inmates.
What about low-level offenders who are already serving prison terms?
They stay where they are. Realignment only applies to parolees and inmates sentenced after October 1, 2011. So contrary to common misconception, non-violent inmates currently in prison do not get transferred to county jails. Additionally, low-level offenders released from prison or jail now get supervised by county-based probation programs rather than monitored by the state's parole system. And non-serious parole violators generally no longer get sent back to prison: many will serve their terms in county jails. This is where much of the inmate reduction has occurred, because prior to realignment, roughly 47,000 inmates a year served terms of 90 days or less in the state's prison system.
What's the difference between jail and prison?
Jails in California are county-run facilities that traditionally house low-level inmates serving sentences of under a year, or for those awaiting criminal trial. Jails are under the jurisdiction of the county sheriff's department. Every county in the state presides over its own jail system (with the exception of Alpine County, which doesn't have any jails).
Prisons are state-run facilities administered by the CDCR. They're generally intended to house more serious and violent offenders whose sentences are generally over a year. However, in recent decades, an increasing number of low-level, non-violent offenders have been sentenced to relatively lengthy prison terms, and this added to the extent of prison overcrowding There are 33 state prison facilities currently operating in California.
Where did inmates go under realignment?
Data Source: California Board of State and Community Corrections
A version of this originally appeared on the Lowdown
- California Department of Corrects & Rehabilitation - Realignment Page
- California District Attorneys Association Analysis of the 2011 Criminal Justice Realignment (pdf)
- Chief Probation Officers of California on Realignment
- California State Association of Counties Presentation on Realignment
- California Sentencing Institute - statistics on inmate populations by county and offense
- ACLU Realignment Analysis
- KPBS explores the cost of California's "tough on crime" legislation.