Central Valley jails: Need some cheese with that whine?

This is Mule Creek State Prison’s rec room in 2012. Before realignment, it was filled with bunks.


Last month The Sacramento Bee ran a big, fat, front-page story on how California’s two-year prison realignment experiment has flooded Central Valley jails to the point that they’re releasing people early. (Sure, most of these individuals are pre-trial arrestees who haven’t been convicted and can’t afford bail, but let’s not get bogged down with details.) The July 25 article by Brad Branan covered a lot of ground, so it’s perhaps understandable that the story glossed over the why of it all with this one sentence:

“Central Valley counties have greater jail capacity problems than other parts of the state because they had previously sent a greater proportion of offenders to state prisons, experts say,” Branan writes.

This is a point worth exploring if we want to understand why failure on the realignment front is a self-fulfilling—and potentially profitable—venture.

First, a primer on realignment. Before everything went crashing down in 2008, California invested its “blue state” soul into an unofficial prison jobs bill. But there wasn’t a demand to match the supply. So politicians and criminal justice bosses colluded to scare voters into greasing “tough-on-crime” laws like mandatory-minimum sentences, gang enhancements, adult sentences for 14-year-olds and, most notably, three strikes. The system successfully monetized millions of poor and brown people to the point that they could be deposited again and again into institutions like magical checks and keep prison officials swimming in overtime.

But the system worked too well. It created too many unwilling customers for a limited product. Eventually the feds stepped in and deemed California’s over-packed prisons a humanitarian crisis. The state, needing a quick fix, pushed through Assembly Bill 109 and related legislation in October 2011. The law, known as realignment, shifts the burden for housing and supervising thousands of low-level offenders back to the counties they originated from. Suddenly, all those “non-violent, non-sexual, non-serious” offenders counties were shipping to state prisons boomeranged back for local care.

Unfortunately, many of the counties, rather than spending the $2.2 billion (and counting) they’ve gotten from the state on actual rehab programs, as the law requests, legally embezzle it for more jail beds, custody officials and probation officers. Another building boom is in the offing, with more than 10,000 local jail beds to be added across California, according to state data. More than a thousand of those beds will be in the Central Valley counties of Kern (822) and Kings (252).

This is where the griping is often the loudest. Not coincidentally, it’s also where law and order policies are the most aggressive.

“In general, counties that experienced the largest per-capita impact of realignment are those that used the state prison system more intensively prior to the implementation of the reforms,” the Public Policy Institute of California concluded in a report last year.

According to the PPIC, Kings County, with its 152,000 populace, sent more than 1,000 local offenders to state prison in June 2011, four months before realignment took effect. Fresno County sent more than 500 that same month. One year later, those figures dropped by 234 and 114, respectively. That means hundreds of individuals who could have done their time locally and perhaps benefited from community treatment programming were instead shipped off to overcrowded state penitentiaries.

The worst thing about this? We’re now gifting tens of millions of no-strings taxpayer dollars to these counties to continue their failed policies.

Fresno County claims to have slivered off $2 million from its two-year $29 million haul for evidence-based programming, the Board of State and Community Corrections reports. Of the more than $36 million it’s received since October 2011, Kern County gave less than a million to community-based organizations, it says. Sacramento County, which got more than $45 million the first two years, says it gave north of $1.7 million to CBOs. Almost $28 million went to its jails.

Keep in mind, these meager funds are self-reported claims of what counties have put into local programs. The state doesn’t actually monitor how its (sorry, our) money is spent.

When asked about the importance of such oversight at a PPIC event in June, BSCC executive director Linda Penner downplayed her board’s role as overseer in charge.

“The locals took on the workload, and they are doing the job,” she said. “And so, do we want to be legislated and mandated by the state for an obligation that we took on? I think there will be some push-back to that.”

Penner also happens to be Fresno County’s chief probation officer, which explains why she may be a bit reluctant to guard the hen house, what with being a fox and all.

On the plus side, in the aforementioned BSCC report, Kings County admits it has spent not one red cent of its $9 million allocation on local programs. Say what you will about how brazen Kings officials are being, but at least they have the courtesy not to lie.

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