Bloomberg News

California Shifts Thousands of Criminals to Jails to Cut Costs

September 30, 2011

Sept. 30 (Bloomberg) -- California will shift responsibility for thousands of criminals from state control to county lockups and local probation under a plan by Governor Jerry Brown to ease prison crowding and cut spending.

Starting tomorrow, felons convicted of nonviolent, low- level crimes such as drug possession will no longer be sent to prison. Instead, they’ll be held in a county jail or sentenced to alternatives such as house arrest, diversion programs or GPS ankle-bracelet tracking. Local parole officers, instead of state agents, will monitor most ex-convicts.

California, which slashed spending on schools and the poor this year to erase a $26 billion projected deficit, runs the nation’s largest correctional system, with about 161,000 inmates. The U.S. Supreme Court, citing overcrowding and inadequate health care, ordered the state to reduce the prison population by 33,000 in two years.

Holding prisoners in county jail, permitting the prison population to fall through attrition, “is the most viable plan to comply with the court’s order,” Brown told reporters yesterday at the statehouse in Sacramento. “We can’t overturn the Supreme Court’s decision, but we can work together to fix our broken system and protect public safety.”

Brown, a 73-year-old Democrat, has touted the plan as a way to reduce the rate of convicts who return to crime, now almost 70 percent, by putting the care of local offenders in the hands of local authorities who have a better understanding of local resources.

Republican lawmakers have expressed concerns that the so- called realignment will push thousands of felons onto their streets.

‘A Dump’

“This is not a realignment, this is a dump,” said Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, a Republican from Gerber. “A dump of state problems on the cities, on the counties and more importantly on the citizens, who will unequivocally and absolutely be victims of these unrehabilitated criminals.”

When Brown, a 73-year-old Democrat, proposed the shift in January, he asked lawmakers for a statewide referendum to extend expiring tax increases, with some of that revenue directed to counties to help pay for the realignment program.

Republican lawmakers refused. Democrats allocated $450 million to help counties with the change this fiscal year, and plan to put up another $800 million next year and $1 billion annually after that, though there is no guarantee of funding each year.

Brown has pledged to push for a constitutional amendment, requiring voter approval, to secure financing for the shift that may include a tax increase.

“I’m not leaving Sacramento until we get a constitutional guarantee to protect law enforcement,” Brown told a conference of police and local officials Sept. 21.

The state will spend $9.8 billion on its prisons and parole system this fiscal year, about 11 percent of an $85.9 billion budget. That’s up $224 million from last year but short of the record of $10.1 billion set in fiscal 2008.

--Editors: Pete Young, Stephen Merelman

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael Marois in Sacramento at mmarois@bloomberg.net;

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at mtannen@bloomberg.net.


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