California’s prison-realignment plan an abysmal failure

By Craig Cassidy, The Union Democrat March 08, 2012 10:36 am

California’s prison-realignment plan — Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature’s answer to a court-ordered reduction in the populations of the state’s 33 prisons — is just months old but has already proven to be an abysmal failure.

AB 109 has put the public at risk, diminished the punishment for some serious criminal offenses to mere handslaps, strained local law enforcement resources and gutted the state CDCR’s system of inmate firefighting camps — an important firefighting tool.

Four problems to offset one big, recurring problem: our lawmakers’ inability to balance the state’s budget.
  

In finer detail, here are some highlights of what AB 109 has meant locally since it launched in October. It has:

• put violent convicts — including those convicted of slayings and sex crimes — onto the streets of Tuolumne and Calaveras counties. This doesn’t square with the state’s assurances that only “N3” — wonk speak for “nonviolent, nonserious and nonsexual” — offenders would be put in counties’ hands and is a result of some fine print in the bill. It says the CDCR will look at a prisoner’s LAST conviction in determining whether they are a risk to the community. Bottom line: Get convicted of a rape or murder, serve your sentence, get busted for a parole violation while outside and, viola, you are a low-risk offender in the state’s eyes.

• made a mockery of our penal system. Some crimes formerly punishable by imprisonment — like commercial burglary and manslaughter — are now punishable by time in the county cooler. Case in point, a Valley Springs man was convicted last week of involuntary manslaughter for breaking a drug dealer’s neck during a fight in his trailer, killing him. James A. Livezey could get up to four years but will serve his time, not in prison, but in county jail, according to the DA’s Office. We have yet to see what the trickle down effect will be. Already in Tuolumne County, few people serve out their actual jail sentences. They’re released because of overcrowding. What happens when even more beds are tied up with people who formerly went to prison?

• seriously drained law enforcement resources. The state is giving Tuolumne County about $600,000 and Calaveras County $400,000 to pay for the transfer of responsibilities, but it’s not enough to hire additional law enforcement officers, with the exception of two probation employees in Tuolumne County (Calaveras County hasn’t decided how it will spend its money). How badly does it clog the system? Consider this: To do a probation check on a scary parolee in Tuolumne County now requires not just a probation officer dropping in, but two sheriff’s deputies as back up. This at a time when about seven deputies are patrolling the entire county on any given weekday. Last week, Tuolumne County OK’d arming three probation officers but it’s yet to be seen if that will work out.

• put the state’s system of “Conservation Centers” — i.e. firefighting camps — at risk. These camps, 42 in all, supply the state with a workforce of low-risk prison inmates to clear fire lines around communities, and to preform community service. The N3s being released are the same people who used to populate the program. By 2016, the number of inmates working in the conservation centers could drop from 4,300 to 2,500, according to a state watchdog agency.

Local law enforcement leaders, at least in Tuolumne County, have worked admirably well with what little they have received in terms of state support.

Yet, the state’s LAO last week issued an update on AB 109’s progress which, among other things, found that it doesn’t go far enough. Based on current CDCR population projects, the state will miss the court-mandated limit by 6,000 inmates in 2013.

What can be done?

Perhaps the state needs to contract out incarceration to private companies or other less-impacted states? Whatever the solution, it should be one that won’t put dangerous criminals on the streets.

Our local lawmakers — sane enough to vote against the original realignment bill last summer — need to draft legislation in this current session to reverse AB 109, or at least make it a better, more honest bill.

To say AB 109 is flawed is a gross understatement. It’s criminally stupid.