Thursday, December 22, 2011

Realignment: An Opportunity to Rethink Corrections

Some of the recent developments in realignment implementation, such as the request for jail expansion in Los Angeles County and Riverside's shocking vote to charge inmates $140 per night for their jail stay, make one ponder whether counties really understand the idea behind realignment legislation.

AB 109 is not merely a jurisdictional change. The legislator intended an actual ideological shift in how California treats its inmates. A simple read of the bill's text provides ample proof of that. The bill explicitly states that there would be a preference for intergration in the community, through programs like home detention. More importantly, it shifts inmates from state parole supervision to community postrelease, meant to provide better integration in the community. And to achieve that, community corrections partnerships have been formed in the counties and tasked with planning release in the context of a given community. Yes, the impetus for the realignment was fiscal, but there is ample evidence that this is intended to be a true paradigm shift. This story from Western Cities makes a great read in that respect.

If so, old-school thinking about construction and warehousing needs to be set aside and new models need to be considered. For example, why not reconsider felon disenfranchisement and extend voting rights to jailed inmates? As this ACLU guide explains, felons on parole currently cannot vote, but what about folks on community postrelease? Not only does it appear that these folks are not "on parole", but rather under a probation-like regime, and can therefore vote, but it's also sound public policy: There's robust statistical proof that extending voting rights to people, and getting them involved in civic life, significantly contributes to recidivism reduction. Many countries in the world think nothing of providing inmates with voting rights as they do their time, not only upon release. Reintegration into society and reducing reoffending: Isn't that what this is all about?

Here's another example: As we discovered on our Food Deserts conference earlier this Fall, there are some beautiful prison projects that include community gardens and the like. The produce cannot, for various reasons, be consumed by CDCR inmates themselves. But why should local jail inmates not enjoy the fruits of their labor? And if, for some reason, that doesn't make sense, why not combine their jail sentence with some landscaping work in urban gardens so that low-income families can get more fresh produce?

A third possible opportunity, borrowed from a suggestion Jonathan Simon made at a public talk in 2009, and which would become much more pertinent now: Given the concerns about infrastructure disasters and earthquakes in California, why not use jails and community postrelease programs to teach more inmates and released folks to save lives, homes, and businesses? It is an important function that we would all benefit from.

I truly hope that some counties will be able to think outside the box, set aside their appetite for construction and warehousing, and seize the realignment for what the legislators intended it to be: An opportunity to reverse the California correctional crisis.

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