“California leads America in many things. One of them is a mania for locking people up.” Prisoner Overcrowding: The Magic Number, The Economist
In 2011, Governor Brown signed AB 109 and AB 117, together commonly referred to as Realignment. Realignment shifts to counties the responsibility of incarcerating and supervising low-level felony offenders who would previously be bound for state prison. This law predominantly impacts “non-non-nons” or felons who are not and have not been convicted of a serious, violent or registerable sex offense. Rather than go to state prison or serve parole, these felons will now serve out their sentences in county jails and will be supervised thereafter in county “Post Release Community Supervision” programs.
While this law is oft-cited as the State's response to unconstitutional prison overcrowding, the law actually meets multiple State objectives. In addition to addressing prison over-crowding, Realignment is thought to have a positive impact on the State budget. It is less expensive for the State to pay counties to house and monitor felons than for the State to do so itself. Finally, and most importantly, Realignment is seen as one solution to resolving the State's broken prison system, which is seen as a revolving door. Given that recidivism rates remain high for felons released from prison, it is thought that counties may be better positioned to support post-release felons. At the County level, agencies and communities have more resources and flexibility to support successful prisoner reentry.
Now two years after the law's passage, politicians, advocacy groups and researchers are engaged in a heated debate as to whether or not realignment has led to an increase in crime. For example, in the Huffington Post's article, California Realignment Blamed for Increase in Crime, the author describes how two advocacy groups point to the same recent FBI crime data to show how realignment has either led to an increase or a decrease in crime rate. Indeed, the data does seem mixed. Next year, the State's Community Correction Board plans to launch a three-year study to better understand Realignment's impact.
In the meantime, Governor Brown is under great pressure to release 9,000 more felons from prison in order to comply with a Federal Court order to reduce the State prison population so that prisoners are able to obtain appropriate mental and healthcare services. At one point California prison's housed twice as many inmates as they were designed to hold. While the prison population has decreased markedly since then, the court has still found that prison overcrowding continues to lead to unconstitutional prison conditions. If Brown fails to comply with the court's order, he may face contempt charges.