Governor Jerry Brown's plan to overhaul the state's criminal justice system, known as realignment, is redirecting thousands of low-level offenders from state prisons to county jails. Can this prison reform effort succeed where others have failed?
Governor Jerry Brown's plan to overhaul the state's criminal justice system, known as realignment, is redirecting thousands of low-level offenders from state prisons to county jails. This has partially eased prison overcrowding, but realignment has another goal: improving rehabilitation programs for the hardcore inmates who remain in state prisons. On average, 7 out of 10 ex-inmates return to prison. Can this prison reform effort succeed where others have failed?
Images of California's prison overcrowding were iconic -- thousands of inmates living in bunk beds packed into gymnasiums and other improvised dorms. So its no surprise the mood was celebratory earlier this year when prisons chief Matthew Cate announced the removal of the last of these emergency beds at a prison near Tracy, calling it a great day for the California Department of Corrections.
Cate then showed off an empty gym. He declared California's embattled prison system was charting a new course. "I think it feels like the end of this era," Cates said, "where we felt comfortable just shoving inmates into the prison system and we didn't seem to care what happened after that. So I think it's the beginning of an era where we say we need to provide a program for those inmates who are going to join society one day."
That new era is detailed in a bold strategic plan that seeks to end federal court oversight and expand treatment programs. The problem is that previous efforts by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitaion, or CDDR, to reform the prison system have met obstacles or failed completely.
"CDCR has not had a history of being able to really marshal the kind of effort that this is going to take," said Joan Petersilia, a Stanford law professor and prominent criminologist.
During the Schwarzenegger administration, Petersilia helped design a model rehabilitation system to reverse decades of neglect in state prisons. The initiative was adopted by lawmakers and promoted by the corrections department in a 2008 video, highlighting expanded rehabilitation programs to improve public safety. But the plan never fully got off the ground amid the recession and budget cuts. Petersilia said the state's latest effort will have to overcome "monumental" challenges to be successful. "I'm not confident, but I'd like to be pleasantly surprised," said Petersilia.
Today, at Solano prison, 50 miles northeast of San Francisco, there are no signs of overcrowding on the main yards. But like 22 other state prisons, Solano is still operating above population limits set by federal courts. And the prison's education staff still hasn't recovered from state budget cuts. "We used to be a staff of 135, and now we're a staff of 32," said teacher Jenny Casner, "That was huge, big cuts."
Still, hundreds of inmates are busy in programs and prison jobs. There's a small facility where prisoners produce lenses for eyeglasses. And down the hill from the prison, dozens of inmates attend Solano's extensive substance abuse programs.
The men who lead the group are prisoners -- lifers. And that's not unusual. Since staff cutbacks, many programs are being run by inmates, like 47-year-old Cotton Jones. He said realignment has emboldened reformers inside the prison system to create more opportunities.
"Realignment is giving them not power but there's a mandate," said Jones, "and because there's a mandate now they get to say okay, because we know we have to let some people go, we have to do something to make them better. I've been in for two decades but at some point I'll be someone's neighbor."
Some inmates are pessimistic.
"Realignment, it looks like it's just a game," said Willard Birts, a 54-year-old inmate. Birts said even though many lower-level offenders are now in county jails, the prison is still crowded. And for people in his unit, there's a long waiting list for programs and jobs. "Basically a lot of us just sitting here being warehoused," Birt complains. "We have to rehabilitate ourselves basically through some type of spirituality, self study or by corresponding with outside organizations."
In fact, state data show that only 10 to 20 percent of inmates who should be in programs are having their needs met. So corrections officials are trying to convince skeptics that change is coming.
At a recent community outreach forum in Oakland, Corrections spokesman Bill Sessa said the plan is to reach 70 percent of state inmates who need programs like substance abuse, anger management and job training. The goal is to provide the skills that will keep felons who've spent decades in prison from reoffending.
"Because we'll only have serious offenders with longer sentences," Sessa said, "we know they'll go into a rehab program at the beginning, stay through it the end and then they'll be something waiting for them when they go out on parole.
Stanford criminologist Joan Petersilia said that approach is a positive step, but she also points out that's a tough population to work with, and the outcome is uncertain. "The real question for California," said Petersilia, "is that most of the models have never been applied to the kinds of serious offenders that we're going to now try to apply them to. I think CDCR will do their best, but this is an experiment and we need to acknowledge that it is."
Realignment is not even a year old, and Petersilia said it's too soon to say whether this experiment can succeed in reversing the prison system's troubled record. California has until next June to comply with the federal court order to reduce its prison population and prove that it is providing humane treatment for inmates.