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Editorial

Get ready, California counties, here come the inmates

Where hopeful reformers see a new smart-on-crime paradigm, L.A. County supervisors sense an all-too-familiar inadequately funded offloading of state problems onto the counties.

August 30, 2011

Beginning Oct. 1, inmates from 33 California prisons who are released on parole will begin reporting to county probation officers rather than state parole agents. The new local authority over "post-release community supervision" will apply only to those whose convictions were for non-serious, nonviolent, non-sex-related offenses. On the same date, newly convicted "non-non-non" offenders will be remitted to county custody — to jail, or to community programs or other sentencing alternatives — instead of being sent to state prison. And newly accused defendants without outstanding warrants who need to be monitored until their trial dates may be required to wear electronic ankle bracelets in lieu of being incarcerated.

These three new approaches to dealing with criminal offenders and defendants are the primary components of AB 109, also known as public safety realignment. The bill, signed into law this year, is Sacramento's response to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Plata, which ordered the sharp reduction of the state prison population to reduce overcrowding and address medical inadequacies that were so severe as to violate the 8th Amendment's strictures against cruel and unusual punishment.

To reformers, realignment represents a landmark transition from a generation's worth of tough-on-crime policies to a new, less expensive, more enlightened and more effective "smart on crime" approach. Prisoners now get little in the way of rehabilitation behind bars and little in the way of "reentry" support — such as substance-abuse treatment and counseling, medical attention, mental healthcare and housing — when they are paroled. Thus unprepared for life as healthy, productive and contrite citizens, they re-offend at an astonishing rate of 67.5%. In theory — in theory, mind you — counties are better equipped than the state to supervise and support low-level offenders, and are prepared to do it for less money.

But Los Angeles County supervisors are worried. And they should be. They have a checkered track record in oversight and administration. And they have knowledge of and experience with Sacramento and past attempts at realigning funds and services. Where hopeful reformers see a new smart-on-crime paradigm, the supervisors sense an all-too-familiar inadequately funded off-loading of state problems onto the counties.

Yes, Sacramento is supposed to cover the new county costs, but the state's commitment is limited to the current fiscal year. Lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown have spoken a lot this year about a constitutional amendment to cement the state funding guarantee for future years, but as of now there is no such amendment and no sign of one in the offing.

Even for this year, the state makes no commitment to cover all new county costs. To reformers, that's a necessary part of any epic reorientation on crime: Supervisors must be discouraged from blowing their scarce new state dollars on costly incarceration or they'll have no incentive to seek, implement and evaluate alternative programs. But to county officials, it looks an awful lot like the state is wiping its metaphorical hands and closing its virtual eyes. Best of luck to you county folks.

But even with adequate funding, Los Angeles County has shown that it has hardly mastered the art and science of prisoner reentry. The Probation Department, which will take the lead in implementing AB 109 here, is a shambles, under scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Justice, unable to prevent fights and injuries at its juvenile facilities, incapable of effectively managing its employees. The Sheriff's Department, which will also have a leading role, has similar and perhaps even more severe problems with wayward deputies and abuse of inmates. Real wraparound services involving multiple county agencies, geared at ending cycles of failure for the chronically homeless and for gang-age youth, have been ventured for only small numbers of people participating in exceedingly modest county programs.

This is not reentry, at least not as longtime reformers and activists have envisioned it. And that's a shame, because reformers are right when they assert that this is California's big chance to get smart on crime. With adequate time, attention and resources, it can work here. But when done on the fly and on the cheap, it increases the likelihood of a major failure, such as a high-profile violent crime committed by an offender under county supervision. Just one such crime can sometimes be enough for an impatient public to demand a second U-turn and return to the just-lock-them-up mind-set that got us in our current fix. In a nation in which Texas and other conservative jurisdictions have become the progressive leaders of the smart-on-crime movement, reactionary California will continue to bring up the rear.

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