California’s Goal to Reduce Prison Populations Hinges on Counties’ Plans

By Raj Jayadev

Santa Clara County Main Jail

Through a recent piece of legislation called AB109 that mandates a reduction in the prison inmate population, California counties are being given a rare, historic opportunity to re-imagine its public safety framework in a way that can dramatically strengthen our communities, unite our families, and rebuild the economy of our resource depleted state.

Or, we can just fill up our local jails with people who would have filled up our state prisons.

What path we take in the state’s fork in the road moment will be based on how counties envision, strategize, and act over the next two months, as counties need to submit their plan for what is being called “realignment” on October 1st, 2011. And as much as I hate to use a Silicon Valley catch phrase – Santa Clara County, as well as every California county, can shift the paradigm of our criminal justice system if we allow our more rationale thinking to prevail over the impulse to do more of the same in terms of incarceration.

According to the mandates of AB109, counties will receive certain populations of non-violent, non-serious offenders from the state prison system. In total, the state is expecting to transfer roughly 40,000 prison inmates to the 58 counties over the next three years. In Santa Clara County, roughly 3,000 inmates and parolees will be received from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, along with an estimated 13 million dollars from the state in the first year to operationalize their changes. Each county, under the legislation, has a Community Corrections Committee — consisting of the Chief Probation Officer, the Sheriff, the District Attorney, the Public Defender, a judge, the Director of Mental Health, and a police chief – who will construct the realignment plan. Fortunately, in Santa Clara County, the committee has shown a commitment to look at realignment as an opportunity for change, rather than a burden to bear.

But given the time pressure, the risk counties face is equating realignment for re-entry, an inclination that may squander an opening for larger impact. The loudest question in the room is: What are we going to do with all these people returning to our county? And while counties do need to innovate, make difficult resource decisions, and coordinate services to answer this very real question – re-entry is only one stage of the incarceration machinery. Ultimately, if a county is going to reduce the number of people it is sending to the state prison system, it needs to change the decision points that lead to incarceration in the first place as well. For example, upon charging: how will the District Attorney’s Office use their prosecutorial discretion? Upon sentencing: How will judges determine placement? When put on probation: How will probation officers actively assist probationers to find employment and housing so they don’t end up getting violated?

And having just sat in last week’s Santa Clara County’s Community Corrections Committee, two indisputable realities exist. One: there are more questions than answers. Two: Important stakeholders who may hold the most informed ideas on how to move forward are not present. So far.

And this is why a discussion as significant and open-ended as realignment needs all stakeholders at the table – including those on probation or parole, their families, the faith communities, victims’ rights groups, civil rights organizations – sitting alongside county officials to construct a plan that has collective buy in.

The challenge of this more inclusive process is that county-wide criminal justice reform is rarely discussed in a popular, public, sense. There may be dialogues around state policies or national debates, but the backyard conversation, the one that is the key arena for realignment, is rarely given any broad-based attention. This is despite the fact that being affected by the county criminal justice system is in some ways the common denominator of county residents, as it impacts everything about us – our economy, our schools, our neighborhoods, and how we elect our politicians. And in the case of AB109, it is undoubtedly where the rubber hits the road.

Already, in the brief public comment periods of the Santa Clara County Community Corrections Committee, some ideas brought forward by the few community stakeholders who have attended meetings are garnering support. One such idea around reducing recividism is for “peer mentors” to assist people returning to the county – residents who have walked down a similar road, have made their transformations, and can help navigate returnees by connecting them with services and providing a measure of support from someone “who’s been there.”

And in Santa Clara County, the County Board of Supervisor Goerge Shirakawa is embracing the inclusive approach for plan development. He has asked service providers to conduct community forums to solicit ideas for both successful re-entry and the reduction of recidivism – and we are answering that call.

An article published last week in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “Santa Clara County Prepares for Influx of Inmates Into Jails,” cites Santa Clara County as the county that sends more inmates to prison than any other county in the Bay Area. Realignment represents an opportunity for Santa Clara to relieve itself of that dubious distinction.  The article goes on to say that given the sheer numbers that Santa Clara County deals with in terms of the inmate population, other counties will be watching how the county “copes with the shift.” With enough participation and political will, our process stands to be more than a bureaucratic  “shift” from prisons to jails, but can represent a new, smarter, way for criminal justice to operate on the county level.

Raj Jayadev is the Director of Silicon Valley De-Bug, which runs the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project – a community organizing model that assists families and organizations to impact their local criminal justice system. For more information go to: acjusticeproject.com

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