Many Counties Fail to Learn State Lessons and Continue to Expand Jail in Response to Prisoner Realignment


As the deadline approached, counties across California scrambled to approve plans for the State’s massive realignment plan, which began transferring responsibility for low level prisoners from state prisons to counties on October 1st. While politicians and pundits called the move unprecedented, many counties drafted ill-conceived plans that were entirely familiar copies of failed state policy: build more jails and leave programs and services as an “unaffordable” afterthought.

Indeed, anyone who has followed the Supreme Court prison overcrowding case or California prison policy for the past 30 years can see the foreboding threat of drained budgets and future overcrowding lawsuits spread across 58 counties. In response to the déjà vu, the statewide alliance Californians United for A Responsible Budget (CURB) issued a report card commenting on how well 13 counties’ realignment plans face up to Einstein’s definition of sanity (doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results).

Using a “pass”, “fail”, and “incomplete” grading system, CURB assessed San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Alameda, Santa Clara, Contra Costa, Riverside, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Fresno, Kern, San Bernardino, San Diego, and San Mateo counties. Starting from the understanding that realignment would most effectively be implemented by using alternative sentencing and community-based reentry services instead of costly and ineffective jail expansion, CURB issued its grade by looking at counties’ balance between alternatives and more corrections spending.

According to a recent USC/LA Times poll, these standards closely echo the desires of most Californians. The poll found that a sizable majority of Californians want state spending on healthcare and education rather than imprisonment, with majorities favoring other sweeping prison system reforms. Following this trajectory, CURB stressed, “Realignment should not be used as an excuse to expand policing, probation or jails. If realignment is to be successful, it must move away from financially and socially disastrous expansion plans, and invest in supporting people returning to our communities.”

Only 3 counties, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and Santa Clara counties, received passing grades on the report card, for deciding not to build more jail space, and for their attempts to include resources for alternatives to incarceration like drug treatment, housing, and restorative justice programs, with strong reentry services for those exiting county facilities. Despite positive steps toward alternative and reentry services, and even though realignment only deals with the adult system, Alameda county was given an “incomplete” based on its plans to expand juvenile facilities.

Santa Cruz County will receive $1.6 million for realignment. The county’s jails are at 125 percent capacity, but the county has decided there is no need to increase jail space and is expanding alternatives. “We need to be smart about how we use that money,” Sheriff Phil Wowak told the Mercury News. “I don’t want to increase (jail) capacity because it doesn’t help the problem.” Instead, the county plans to expand custody alternatives such as community service and work furlough, as well as anger management and other programs. Ultimately, the County hopes to save tax dollars while improving public safety.

On the opposite side of the spectrum and receiving a “fail” grade, San Bernardino County will receive $25.7 million. The county is notorious for its exorbitant incarceration rate and despite calls for investment in prevention and alternatives from local community leaders like Kim Carter, Director of Time For Change Foundation, the county continues their expensive addiction to mass imprisonment. San Bernardino plans to increase their jail capacity and build 1,368 maximum-security beds at Adelanto Detention Center. The project will be funded by a combination of lease-revenue bonds made available by the infamous AB 900, “the world’s largest prison construction plan” and the county’s own funds. The Adelanto Detention Center expansion project will total approximately $120 million in construction costs and additional millions of dollars that the county will need to spend for the ongoing operation costs.  Isn’t it time the county tried something different and started investing those dollars in real long term solutions?

Linda Evans, a former prisoner and member of the Alameda re-entry council who works with CURB member organizations Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and All of Us Or None, sees room for growth for all counties. “All of these counties are more than capable of choosing to prioritize alternatives to imprisonment and strong reentry services that will break the terrible cycles that have caused this crisis,” says Evans. “And there is much more to do, especially as it relates to reentry. We have thousands of formerly incarcerated people in this state trying to reintegrate into their communities that are getting discriminated against at every turn. Services are a great start, and we need to work just as hard to restore our people’s civil rights.” To date, no counties have pledged to end this discrimination as a part of their realignment plans.

CURB says it hopes to offer ways for counties to humanely implement realignment plans while at the same time continuing to work for early release for sick and elderly prisoners, as well as three strike, sentencing, parole, and probation reforms.    

Click here to view the complete report card.


Isaac Lev Szmonko is a member of Critical Resistance, and a part of Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), a statewide alliance of over 40 organizations seeking to control prison spending by reducing the number of people in prison and the number of prisons in the state.


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