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California's New Prison Policy Has Some Skeptics

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California is days away from launching a dramatic shift in the way it handles criminal offenders: Starting in October, the state will redirect tens of thousands of nonviolent felons away from state prisons to local facilities.

The state's plan is called "realignment." It shifts certain functions from the state to the counties, says Barry Krisberg, who teaches criminal justice at the University of California, Berkeley, law school.

"It covers not only criminal justice, but it covers child welfare, mental health, jobs programs," he said, "and it's the largest shift that we've ever seen in the state's history."

Even so, the keystone of realignment is the reversal of the state's tough-on-crime approach, to what state corrections officials say is a "smart-on-crime" strategy.

On Sept. 21, Gov. Jerry Brown reminded an audience of local law enforcement officials that the state has been ordered by no less than the U.S. Supreme Court to reduce its prison population by 30,000 inmates. Brown says realignment can help that objective without endangering public safety.

"We're not letting out the dangerous people," he said. "We're going to keep them in. That's the whole point."

Inmates now in state prisons will remain there. New offenders — nonviolent, non-serious, non-sexual offenders — will go to county jails, where they can be closer to local rehab and diversion programs.

Sufficient 'Collective Will'?

Many local public safety officials are worried, however, about having to implement the plan by Oct. 1. They wonder whether they'll get enough money from the state to do it.

"The program is funded for exactly nine months," said Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, one of the most outspoken skeptics. "What happens after nine months, we don't know."

In his speech to law enforcement officials, Brown tried to quell those doubts, saying he'll work on a way to guarantee state money for California's 58 counties.

"Now, some of you think that when I'm gone or something, they're gonna take it away from you," he said. "I want to tell you I'm not leaving Sacramento until we get a constitutional guarantee to protect law enforcement and the whole realignment process so that you get the funding you need to make the thing work."

That means getting a ballot initiative in front of voters as soon as November 2012. Jones remains doubtful about Brown's plan, however.

"I trust him. I don't trust the collective will or ability of the legislature to maintain that," he said. "I don't trust that it would pass by the voters if it made it on the ballot, and I certainly don't trust the next governor to keep this governor's commitment."

Fear Of Inconsistency

Prison reformers have their concerns, too. Sara Norman of the Prison Law Office says keeping low-level offenders closer to their homes, communities, jobs and families is a good thing, but she fears it won't be done right.

"If that programming isn't there, if substance-abuse treatment, job retraining, things like that, are not available to them, it could be a big mess," she said.

Norman says it's not just the state prison system that's beset with problems. There are more than 20 California county jails that have court-ordered capacity limits because of overcrowding.

Moreover, Krisberg of Berkeley Law says with a lack of state oversight in the plan, he foresees disparity in how realignment is implemented.

"With a state with 58 counties and the diversity of California," he said, "what we're going to see is 58 varieties of realignment."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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