Apr 22, 2014

California Re-Alignment

I spent the yesterday at a California Reentry Courts Summit in San Francisco. California is in the midst of a major"realignment" of its corrections system that devolves responsibility for the incarceration of certain offender categories to counties. This is in response to a federal court order that California reduce overcrowding in state prisons, which was later affirmed by the U.S Supreme Court. At its height, California's prisons were housing just over 170,000 persons, including  47,000 persons on parole who were cycling into the system every 90 days on a parole violation. In 2011 Governor Brown signed AB 109 into law setting in motion a major movement towards reducing overcrowding.

Reentry Courts are one strategy that counties are using to address prison overcrowding under AB 109.  Reentry Courts are a collaborative, problem-solving approach that enhances community supervision for persons on parole who are at  moderate to high risk of re-offending. Under California's plan, Reentry Courts will address parole violations in each county and high risk persons with drug or mental health needs. County courts can also sentence persons to split sentences which require a minimum amount of jail time on state charges, with the rest of the time served in the community under court supervision.

Local collaboration is key to this effort. The Law requires the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, probation and parole to work with the State Courts to reduce recidivism. This is an unusual partnership, judges have little  experience working directly with corrections officials and parole.Yet, judges are going to play a major role in driving down incarceration rates.

It was clear from the presentations and questions that important challenges remain. While re-alignment will bring some additional resources to counties, counties that fail to reduce recidivism will see their reimbursement rate from the state shrink. So counties could face local jail overcrowding if their approach is not successful.

Probation will play a critical role on the local planning teams as the provider of services. While this makes sense given probation's role in the justice system, county probation departments will require additional resources and expertise in evidence-based approaches to be successful in the long run.

Another key challenge : judges will need more training on evidence-based corrections practices. As the leader of the local collaborations, judges must hold other key stakeholders accountable for outcomes. They need to have an in-dept understanding of what works to address criminogenic risks and needs.

Despite these challenges, realignment, if successful, could provide a model for other states seeking to drive down their incarceration rates. Reentry Courts in particular could benefit from this opportunity to test their efficacy. Early results are promising. The Reentry Courts are dealing with the highest risk participants, according to two researchers. They report that:

  • 99% of all reentry court clients have a substance abuse need, 45% of these clients have been suing drugs for 20 or more years
  •  73% have a mental health classification from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
  • 86% are unemployed
  • 41% are on public assistance
  • 77% have been assessed at high risk of recidivism
Early outcomes are positive. California reentry courts have fewer re-convictions and reentry court clients spend fewer days incarcerated.

It is still early in the re-alignment process. It was great seeing judges, corrections leaders and probation and parole leaders all talking about how they are going to work together to improve public safety and reduce incarceration. .

By Christopher Watler, Project Director-Harlem Community Justice Center

I am blogging from the 2014 International Community Court Summit in San Francisco this week. The Summit is co-organized by the California Administrative Office of the Courts and the Center for Court Innovation, with support from the U.S Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance and the California Endowment. Follow the conference on twitter #communityjustice2014