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What realignment means for California corrections

Gov. Jerry Brown's ambitious plan for balancing his state's budget includes moving parole services to county control and dismantling the DJJ

By Bob Walsh, for CorrectionsOne

The current buzzword in California government fiscal circles is “Realignment.” This is what Governor Brown wants to do to many state services. Chief among these, at least for CorrectionsOne readers, is the idea of turning parole services over the county governments, along with a theoretically adequate funding level for these services. An important secondary consideration is the complete dismantling of DJJ (Division of Juvenile Justice) and turning it over to local control also.

DJJ is hellishly expensive. It costs over $250,000 per year per ward to operate the system. At one time the old CYA (California Youth Authority) was a model for the entire world. People used to come from far and wide to see how California did it, because we did it right. DJJ has turned into a sad and expensive joke, with court interventions and warm-and-fuzzy groups, such as Books Not Bars, attempting to co-opt their operation. I have some doubts about the state being able to get completely out of the youth corrections business. I strongly suspect that there will continue to be a small number of hyper-violent, dangerous youngsters who will need some form of effective detention in non-adult facilities. That doesn’t mean the powers that be will recognize this.

Gov. Jerry Brown's ambitious plan for balancing his state's budget that includes moving parole services to county control and dismantling the DJJ. (AP photo)
Gov. Jerry Brown's ambitious plan for balancing his state's budget that includes moving parole services to county control and dismantling the DJJ. (AP photo)

California parole operations are viewed by many as being overly expensive and ineffective. These feelings are not completely wrong, but neither are they spot-on target either.

Parolees have a widely quoted recidivism rate of about 70%. The trouble is that this is comparing apples and oranges, or more correctly a static model against a dynamic one. On any one day there are about 160,000 in state custody, but during any given year there are about 260,000 inmates who cycle through the system. Recidivism figures are based on RTCs (returns to custody) per year, with a population of 160,000. If the correct figure is used the actual recidivism rate is more like 50%, still not wonderful, but neither is it god-awful

In addition, parole has had some spectacular failures of late. The Garrido, Gardner and Samuel cases are chief among them. In all of these there was some failure of the system at a basic level, resulting in horrific crimes against young women. Any system of conditional release will have failures; some of these will be spectacular. That doesn’t mean they should happen, only that they will from time to time. Shifting the burden to county probation operations will not necessarily produce better results, just more local control.

When will these changes likely occur? DJJ has been shrinking for a couple of years. The total number of wards is relatively small. Many counties have been sending few clients into the system for some time. That transition is likely to be relatively smooth, especially since the state has been funding the local programs reasonably well.

Transferring parole operations is more complex. Current state law requires that state parole supervised certain second strike and sex offender cases. That law would have to be changed to dismantle parole completely. That is not undoable, but it will take time and may run into significant opposition. Spooling up local probation departments to track and otherwise handle parolees would take literally months, even if the decision to actually do it were to be made tomorrow. Merely hiring and training the staff could take the better part of a year.

There is a belief that these ideas will be pushed harder and harder as the fiscal year goes on. It is no secret that Governor Brown wants to get a five-year tax extension placed on the ballot for June. This would give the voters of California the opportunity to say “Yes” or “No” to the tax plan. If they say “No,” the Governor plans (or at least says he plans, which isn’t quite the same thing) to slash an additional $12 billion from the state budget, on top of the $12 billion cut already planed.

There is yet another trick to the program. It takes a 2/3 vote of the legislature to get the tax plan on the June ballot. That action must be taken by the end of March to accomplish that goal. The Democrats, who have an overwhelming majority in the state house, do not have enough members to pass this matter to the ballot without a handful of Republicans. So far there are no Republicans willing to vote to do so, and some Democrats are said to be reluctant.

Many of the Governor’s plans have been spoken to recently by the taxpayers. Proposition 22 was passed last November just to keep the state from raiding local Redevelopment Agency funds, which is exactly what the Governor has announced he wants to do. Slightly more than 2 years ago the voters turned down Governor Schwarzenegger’s plan, which was in many ways similar to Governor Brown’s. State employees were chief in their opposition to the Schwarzenegger agenda. Will Brown have any better luck? It’s an open question, but it does seem doubtful.

In about six weeks we will know if the tax plan will make it to the ballot. If it doesn’t, the Governor may very well take out the meat axe. No one knows for sure where it will fall, but DJJ and DAPO (Division of Adult Parole) seem to be high on the list.

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