From scheme to scam
August 30, 2011
In short, as I warned in January, the county was conned.
Realignment represents a massive shift in criminal justice responsibilities. Beginning October 1, the counties, not the state, will begin supervising thousands of newly released California prison inmates convicted of non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual crimes. What’s more, such future defendants will be sentenced to county jail, rather than state institutions, which means that some 7,000 additional inmates a year will be crammed into our already crowded jail system.
And here’s the capper: the legislation that created these profound and costly changes guarantees state funding only for the first year. The price tag for the second year is an estimated $300 million. If the state’s budget remains as stressed as it is, who knows whether we’ll get all or any of that amount. At the risk of sounding cynical, I believe the state was more concerned about vaporizing these expenses from its deficit-plagued budget than about the effectiveness of our criminal justice system.
Earlier this year, in an effort to obtain buy-in from California’s counties, the state dangled the promise of realignment funding for five years, along with a constitutional amendment for the years beyond that. I sharply questioned the likelihood of that happening. But we were assured that the money would be there. As a result, counties across the state took the bait and are now on the hook.
Indeed, once the state removed this financial burden from its books and foisted it on local governments, the deed was done. The state now has no incentive to make good on its earlier promise to fully reimburse counties for their new supervision and incarceration responsibilities.
So, beyond the fiscal dangers, what does realignment mean for crime in our county? Here’s what Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley said in a letter on Tuesday to the Board of Supervisors. “Those who view realignment as a positive development are not just overly optimistic, they are flat wrong. We are in the awful position of having to wait for further crime and substantial victimization to be proven right.”
The logic is persuasive. As the county jails become more crowded with defendants formerly sentenced to state prison, Sheriff Lee Baca will likely have no choice but to increase the number of early releases. He’s done a yeoman’s job of juggling the jail population. But as we’ve seen in the past, this can potentially lead to the commission of more crimes. I hope the district attorney and I are wrong. Still, there’s no question that realignment is creating conditions that do not favor greater public safety.
Like it or not, however, this is now California law and we’re responsible for—and committed to—getting the job done smartly and efficiently. As part of that law, the Board of Supervisors was presented Tuesday with an implementation plan by a multi-agency panel called the Community Corrections Partnership. It takes a 4/5 majority by the supervisors to reject the plan, which will come back to us next Tuesday for a final vote.
As we begin this chancy realignment endeavor, I caution our state leaders to pay very close attention to the impact their budget scheme has on crime and essential county services that could suffer if substantial funding is not provided beyond the first year. Of course, the Board of Supervisors will do its best to plan for worst-case scenarios.
But this much I know already, we won’t be fooled again.