There have been two massive shifts within the corrections system in California within the last year, and a third change is in the works that may, or may not, be significant.
The unknown and potentially major factor is leadership. Matthew Cate has been the Secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for several years. He was disliked (to put it mildly) by most of the rank-and-file and much of the middle and upper level staff within the department. He is not a correctional professional, he is a lawyer. His inner circle, lawyers, mostly came with him from the Office of the Inspector General which Cate headed before becoming Department Secretary. He was generally regarded as a reliable political stooge who would do what the governor told him to do without making waves or causing trouble. He is not a stupid man, he just had zero appreciation for the elements of the job.
Cate left the department in early November. His interim replacement is Martin Hoshino, an Undersecretary within the Department and another lawyer. Hoshino is also bright, and much more likeable than Cate. He is also not a custody person. Who the permanent replacement is could have a great deal to do with the “feel” of the Department for the foreseeable future.
The two massive shifts are “realignment” and the population cap. The courts have ruled that the Department must cut population back to 137.5% of design capacity by July 1 of next year, though there is some wiggle room for a possible extension of that deadline which the department has recently filed for. If fully enforced and no new beds come on line before then this will result in a dump of 44,000 convicted felons out of the state system. (The Supreme Court indicated a six-month extension is likely to be granted if asked for. It is also likely that a huge prison hospital, with over 1,700 beds, will come on line by this time next year.) That state also has more than 5,000 inmates in out-of-state contract beds which it would like to bring back to California but can’t until the population issues are worked out.
The second massive shift is realignment, now 13 months old. This program shifts responsibility for housing and post-release supervision of convicted felons classified as non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual, to county jurisdiction. The recent passage of Proposition 30 ensured what will likely be a reasonable level of fiscal support for this plan.
This plan has resulted in huge losses of employment within the state system and is causing a crunch due to lack of staff at the county level as well as a lack of bed space in county jails. Some jails have empty bed space which can be activated with additional staffing. Some don’t. Some counties are now refusing to accept parole violators without a new felony charge. Others keep them for only a few days. It is not possible to keep most violators for more than ten days without a judge’s approval even if there is an available bed.
This plan has already resulted in serious offenders being released very quickly and committing new, violent crimes. This is caused by the fact that the non-non-non designation is linked to an offender’s most recent criminal conviction and not their history. In this manner a gang-linked convicted killer whose most recent offense is DUI or simple assault could be in and out of jail in a matter of days or even hours. There is no chance that this problem will be smoothed out soon in many local jurisdictions, it just takes too long to create new bed space.
These three interlinked issues will almost certainly define the Department and the system within California for the next several years. My opinion, for what that may be worth to the reader, is that realignment will turn out to be an unmitigated disaster and the criteria for realignment placement will have to be substantially modified. This would ease the burden on the local jails, but would increase the problem for the state system. Sometimes in the real world there are no good solutions.