Inmates walk in the prison yard of the state prison in Lancaster last year. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
From Sacramento — The boring, bureaucratic word "realignment" masks the truly dramatic change in locking up California criminals that Gov. Jerry Brown just pulled off.
"A lot of people say, 'Hey, what's new in Sacramento?'" Brown told a news conference last week. "Well, this is new. It's bold. It's difficult. And it will continuously change as we learn from experience.
"But we can't sit still and let the courts release 30,000 serious prisoners. We have to do something."
In truth, the change was inevitable.
Either the state began to dump thousands of its lower-risk prisoners onto local custody or it would have been forced by federal courts to dump them on the streets.
"We've either got to reduce the prison population or release 10,000 inmates by Christmas Eve," says Matthew Cate, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "That's [equal to] two prisons."
Complainers — such as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — are being disingenuous, at best.
Villaraigosa called a news conference Monday to denounce the state for not providing "a single dollar to help with the burden" of incarcerating and monitoring more criminals. "That is not alignment. That is political malpractice."
Not quite. The state is sending financial help to the counties, including $124 million to Los Angeles County. It's up to the cities to request a share. The mayor has privately told people that he won't "go begging" to county supervisors for money, according to one state official who requested anonymity because he was reporting a private conversation.
My favorite hyperbole, however, comes from Republican State Sen. Sharon Runner of the Antelope Valley: "Now is the time for Californians to get a dog, buy a gun and install an alarm system. The state of California is no longer going to protect you."
Let's be honest: The politicians and the voters simply could not continue their decades-long insistence on increasing criminal sentences and enlarging the prison population without raising the money to pay for more cells and guards.
"It is a completely broken system that was mindlessly expanded without understanding the consequences that we are now dealing with," Brown told reporters. "We want to protect public safety, but we do have limited resources."
Prisons originally designed for 80,000 inmates ballooned to 170,000. Thousands were stacked like cordwood in barracks, gyms and hallways, some triple-bunked. There was little room for exercise and rehab: education, job training and drug treatment. The recidivism rate rose to 70%, twice the national average.
Actually, it all started back when Brown was first governor in the 1970s. He signed a bill that switched California to determinate sentencing, mandating a fixed term for each crime. Before that, sentencing and release were more flexible, depending a lot on the inmate's behavior behind bars.
"Things didn't prove out the way we expected," then-Atty. Gen. Brown told me two years ago, when he was preparing to run for governor again.
"If a prisoner knows he's going to spend a determined amount of time for a crime, it may create a deterrent. But then once in prison, there's no incentive to do work programs, to improve yourself, no incentive that you can get out earlier. That's bad. That's very bad…
"I think the whole prison system needs to be changed."
But Brown is a one-project-at-a-time guy. He isn't ready yet to attempt a return to indeterminate sentencing. First he must implement realignment, the shift of more responsibility for incarceration to local law enforcement.
When Brown was governor in 1978, the prison population was roughly 21,000. It accounted for less than 3% of state general fund spending. Currently, there are approximately 160,000 inmates — 140,000 within state prison walls; the rest incarcerated out of state, in camps or locally — and they're consuming more than 11% of the general fund, or almost $10 billion.
Costs have skyrocketed as politicians tried to outdo each other in stiffening sentences while voters cheered. "Three strikes" has been a particular money-burner.
Meantime, polls showed that prison spending was the first thing voters wanted to cut and the last thing they were willing to pay more taxes for. A survey in May by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 70% of likely voters favored reducing funds for prisons. Only 18% supported raising taxes to maintain the lockups.
"There's a negative perception of prisons and prisoners," says Mark Baldassare, the institute's pollster and president. "Average voters don't like to think of their money being spent on making conditions too comfortable."
Comfort isn't the issue for prisoners' rights attorneys and the federal courts. They're concerned about incendiary conditions and the lack of adequate healthcare.