State Corrections Policy: On the Verge of Profound Change

A groundbreaking change adopted as part of the 2011-12 budget agreement is about to take effect: Beginning October 1, counties will assume responsibility for “low-level” criminal offenders, which generally refers to individuals who have committed non-violent, non-serious, non-sex crimes. As we describe in a new report that looks at state spending on corrections, this historic “realignment” of responsibility – along with a dedicated source of funding – from the state to the counties is intended to divert, over the next few years, tens of thousands of men and women from the state’s overcrowded prisons.

Transferring low-level offenders to county custody and supervision is partly a response to rising state corrections expenditures and the costly cycling of non-violent felons through state prisons. Our new report shows that state spending on corrections has increased by nearly 1,500 percent over the past generation, more than four times the rate of General Fund spending as a whole. Shifting low-level offenders to county supervision has the potential to substantially reduce state corrections spending, thereby reversing the trend of recent decades, in which a larger and larger share of the state budget has gone toward state prisons and parole. Savings could be reinvested in education, child care, health care, and other public services that help build a strong economy and enhance California’s quality of life.

But the benefits of criminal justice realignment go beyond dollars and cents: Realignment gives counties an opportunity and the incentives to focus on substance abuse treatment, basic skills education, and other rehabilitative services that can improve outcomes for offenders and foster public safety. Female offenders would particularly benefit from such a sea change in corrections policy, since more than half of women currently in prison are classified as low risk, serving time for property or drug crimes, as CBP Executive Director Jean Ross pointed out in a recent op-ed co-authored with Rosenberg Foundation President Timothy Silard. Shifting from a predominantly incarceration-based model toward alternatives, however, will require “a significant paradigm shift,” according to the California State Association of Counties: “The successful model will not be an incarceration model, but one that seeks to divert and rehabilitate citizens,” allowing them to become “productive members of our community.” With implementation hinging on the decisions of local officials in 58 counties, Californians across the state have a clear interest in monitoring how this once-in-a-lifetime policy change rolls out over the next several years.

—Scott Graves