Bridge to nowhere


Turning jails into prisons: An open door or bridge to nowhere?

San Diego Union-Tribune, Nov. 17, 2011

By Paul Sutton

Last spring, the Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its prison population by 33,000. On Oct. 1, the state rolled out its massive – and terribly flawed – “realignment” plan, which is designed to move all but the most serious and violent offenders from state prisons to county jails; to have county probation officers, rather than state parole agents, supervise thousands of new parolees; to have violations of parole reviewed by local judges, rather than the state parole board; and to have revoked offenders return to county jails rather than state prisons, shifting what were properly and traditionally state functions onto the backs of crippled and impoverished counties.

A month into realignment, counties have two responses. The first is the simple – and ineffectual – attempt to find – or build – more beds. In some cases, it may be little more than a shell game. Los Angeles County, for example, may lease beds from former low-security state facilities and state prison fire camps from which low-security state inmates are being released, many of whom may well return to the same facilities, reopened under county control. Others, like San Diego County, will spend millions to construct new facilities or to take back beds currently being leased to private concerns.

Either way, the “more beds” approach ignores the glaring anomaly that jails – due to problems of architecture, staffing, administration, function, training, programs, physical space, philosophy, populations, culture and tradition – are simply not competent to handle the long-term management of offenders. Little regard is being paid to the momentous new challenges of managing an offender for five or 10 years as opposed to five or 10 months. Under realignment, a Santa Clara County man just received an unprecedented jail sentence of 21 years. While the county will, doubtless, find a way to house, clothe and feed him, it is unlikely that it will be able to do much more. Under realignment, counties have been thrust, unapologetically, into the prison business, something for which they are woefully unprepared.

To be sure, realignment may get the court off California’s back as state prisons empty. But the respite will be brief, as new litigation targeting county officials will surely ensue – lawsuits alleging equal-protection violations, unconstitutional conditions, inadequate medical care, denial of legal services, overcrowding, etc. So, the “more beds” strategy is simply wrong. It is expensive; it will endanger the public; and it will accomplish nothing for offenders. It is a bridge to nowhere.

The second response to realignment is eminently preferable. It aims to unite public and private agencies in a concerted effort to prepare offenders to re-enter society. It proposes that expanded education, job training, drug and alcohol treatment, and rehabilitation programs be delivered in the community by the community. Given the prohibitive expense of new jail construction and the limited success and availability of programs within those institutions, this approach is overdue. In Sacramento County, community action groups like Californians United for a Responsible Budget are currently opposing a $6 million proposal to build 275 new jail beds. They want that money spent, instead, on community-based programs and alternatives to incarceration.

There was some early encouraging discussion in some counties about the need for community options and the opportunity that realignment might offer for the development of truly effective rehabilitative and reentry programs. After Oct. 1, however, the urgency of housing the influx of new bodies seems to have eclipsed much of that talk. It is time for judges, probation departments, district attorneys, sheriffs, county supervisors and other community leaders to step up – to lend their voices and their support for the creation and dramatic expansion of meaningful programs for offenders within and beyond institutional walls, programs like Second Chance, Delancey Street and others with proven track records. Such programs can offer residential placement for offenders while, at the same time, teaching valuable life skills to help them succeed. Such programs are demonstrably cheaper, safer, more humanitarian and more effective than traditional incarceration.

Other states have introduced effective ways to relieve prison crowding, including prison closures, community-based treatment and fee-based programs, alternative sentencing, probation reform, re-entry planning, and comprehensive sentencing reform. If California does no more with realignment than to expand the number of cells in which we incarcerate offenders, we will have squandered a rare opportunity to finally get it right.

Sutton is a professor of criminal justice at San Diego State University. He has written and lectured extensively about prisons and prison reform.