The ACLU releases a report looking at how counties around the state are doing when it comes to prison realignment.
March 21, 2012 1:16 p.m.
Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, Senior Policy Advocate for Criminal Justice and Drug Policy, ACLU, California
Related Story: Is Prison Realignment Working In San Diego?
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, it's Wednesday, March 21st. Our top story on Midday Edition, we are about six months into California's new prison realignment policy, and the initial assessments have begun. The new state policy initiated by legislation known as AB109 keeps convicted low-level nonviolent offenders in county jails. It's aimed at reducing prison population and lowering state prison costs. San Diego County has been praised for its implementation of prison realignment, and the county receives a reasonably good assessment in a new report issued by the ACLU of California. Here to tell us about that report called California at a cross roads is my guest, Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, senior policy advocate for criminal justice and drug policy at the ACLU. Welcome to the show.
DOOLEY-SAMMULI: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Also joining us is chief Mack Jenkins, head of the San Diego County Probation Department. Welcome back.
JENKINS: Happy to be here.
CAVANAUGH: Margaret, how does this report evaluate prison realignment?
DOOLEY-SAMMULI: Well, this is the most comprehensive analysis to date of realignment. As you said, it's only six months old, and there is a woeful lack of state oversight at this point. We looked at all 53 available county implementation plans and more in depth at 25. And we looked for themes about what counties are doing under this change. And we found, A, not -- a pretty significant in jail expansion, which is not the intent of realignment, though that is allowed. But we did also find a promising trend of counties at least committing at this early stage to alternatives to incarceration, and really being smart on crime, and stemming the flow of people in and out of our jails and prisons.
CAVANAUGH: In this county look across California, what did you find out about San Diego?
DOOLEY-SAMMULI: I think San Diego does, as you said earlier, compare fairly favorably. No county is doing a perfect job, in our opinion. Counties are really learning as they go. San Diego has made some very wise decisions. The best decision so far is to not allocate all of its funding up front. The state provided significant funds, nearly $400 million to all counties to begin implementation of this, to build out local public safety infrastructure, including but not limited to jail, in order to manage this population and cut down on future crime. And San Diego wisely has begun implementation, but by not allocating all the funds is remaining flexible. And it has committed in its realignment plan to doing the kinds of things that it is allowed to do. The new options available for public safety at the local level that realignment allows, and what we need to see is over the next six months, and many years to come, how are those dollars allocated, and are we investing the way we need to to protect public safety and reduce crime?
CAVANAUGH: I want to take a minute and find out what your report finds other counties are doing, especially counties that are struggling. In your report, it states quite specifically that this is a statewide thing. And now one county is doing can spill over into how another county is doing.
DOOLEY-SAMMULI: Well, the biggest mistake a county can make is to think of this public safety change as simply moving bodies around. Because we can't ship them off to state prison, we need to build jails to keep them in jails locally. Really the intent of realignment, and what we know from the evidence around how you do prevent crime, is that we can't go down that road. If we just focus on jail expansion, we know where that road leads. It leads where the state is currently. We have massive jail overcrowding, les now, but there's still prison overcrowding, and one of the highest recidivism rates in the country. So we've built our way into a mammoth system that is completely ineffective. So we're pouring money down the drain. That's what realignment allows us to turn, for counties to do a better job, to focus not just on locking everybody, but to focus on preserving jails for people who pose a risk to public safety, and focusing for others on what it's going to take, monitoring in the community to make sure that they do not commit future crimes and we limit future victims. It gets us what we all want.
CAVANAUGH: Chief Jenkins, you're the head of the probably in San Diego County. What's the biggest thing that's changed for your staff?
JENKINS: I would say what's really changed for our staff is adjusting to a higher level of criminal sophistication that we're seeing from the post released offenders as they're coming back to San Diego County from prison. We know that all of them, who are now coming back to us under post release super vision came from San Diego County. Many of them failed on probation, many were sentenced directly from the Court. In that sense, we had anticipated that they would be similar to the population we currently supervise. My staff have reported to me is that there has been -- some of the folks coming back have displayed a higher level of crime 23458 sophistication.
CAVANAUGH: Do you see that as an ongoing problem? With prison realignment, people who you're going to be seeing in the Probation Department probably won't be sent to state prison to begin with, right?
JENKINS: It's a fair question. And I don't know how much of an ongoing problem it'll be right now. We'll probably still see a higher level for the immediate few months, but at some point, frankly the post release population that is coming out of prison to probation supervision now, those numbers will eventually decline obviously because fewer people are going to prison. I don't quite yet know what those percentages will look like.
CAVANAUGH: How many probationers is your department currently supervising?
JENKINS: Probationers, not post release offenders?
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'll put them all together.
JENKINS: Right now, 15,000 adult probationers, and on the post release side, we've seen about 1,400 post release offenders that have been released from prison and are now under probation supervision and formerly would have been parolees. I want to stress the point these individuals will be come the community anyway. It's just the probation as the supervision entity now responsible for them.
CAVANAUGH: Last time we spoke, you were in the process of hiring more probation officers, because you anticipated you would have a higher case load. Are you you still doing that?
JENKINS: Absolutely, the Board of Supervisors, they authorized 75 positions for the Probation Department this fiscal year, and we have filled I think 44 of them to date. And optimistic we'll have all of them filled before the end of the fiscal year.
CAVANAUGH: Do you feel swarmed?
JENKINS: I wouldn't use the word swamped. We are definitely chemicaled. We are at a point where we're 20% ahead of the projected numbers that we expected to see at this time. That certainly has had an impact. We try to target case load sizes for our post-release officers of not more than 50-1, but because the 20% we're ahead in terms of coming back, and we haven't hired anyone we wanted to hire, those cases are higher than we wanted them to be. I won't say we're swamped. We're working together well within the department, but also collaboratively. So that's been a strength.
CAVANAUGH: Back to the ACLU report, California at a cross roads, one of the major points of this report, the big issues, is criticism of the number of people in county jails who are awaiting trial. They haven't been convicted. Anything. They're just in jail waiting to go on trial. Tell us about that.
DOOLEY-SAMMULI: I think this is a particularly shocking finding for people who were not intimately knowledgeable about the system. In California, in county jails, 71% of people in jail are awaiting trial. They have not yet been sentenced. Too many of them are there not because they pose a risk to public safety but because they cannot afford bail. And this, you know, the wealth is not the determining factor that we want to use to decide who belongs in a jail bed and who doesn't. So as counties are talking about jails being crowded and investing in jail expansion, it's very important that we also demand that they address who's in the beds they currently have. Because there are people in jail who do not need to be there. And this is a problem that can be solved in many ways, but one important one is pretrial custody reform so that people who are safe to release as they're awaiting trial can do so.
CAVANAUGH: What will get them to come back to trial?
DOOLEY-SAMMULI: Well, lots of people are not waiting for trial behind bars. And the show rate at trial is very good. People do generally show up as they're required. And the Court certainly for any pretrial release, the Court needs to determine, does this person pose a risk, is this person likely to show up as required? What's currently happening is basically just bail, and if you can afford bail in many cases, you get out. There are some offenses for which you are not given bail. But this really addresses the folks where bail is set, and the only reason the person remains behind bars is not because the judge thinks they're going to pose a risk to the community, not because there's any sense they won't show up at trial but simply because they cannot afford to meet that bail.
CAVANAUGH: Well, would you recommend then some sort of supervision for people who are going to be released without paying bail, and would normally be -- have to pay some bail in order to guarantee their appearance?
DOOLEY-SAMMULI: There are many models to choose from. In fact in California, Napa, Santa Cruz county have already done this fairly successfully, Washington DC, Baltimore, other places have. It's a combination of things that can include release with monitoring. So that absolutely should be a part of the reforms that all counties are looking at, and San Diego County is looking at that.
CAVANAUGH: Do we have any structure to accommodate that kind of supervision now?
JENKINS: Well, it is an element of our plan. So we're in the process right now with the community connections partnership and workgroups staff, it's multidisciplinary workgroups come include staff from my office, the Public Defender's Office and the District Attorney's office, who are trying to have a bigger impact on the San Diego pretrial population. I believe the ACLU report talks about a statewide figure as high as 71%, here in San Diego, that percentage when we started realignment was as high as 67%. I think it's already come down somewhat, not as much because we have had that many more pretrial releases but because of that many more individuals that have come into the jail. Yes, we are looking at it, and specifically because -- Margaret accurately describes the role of bail in pretrial release. So we're looking at risk assessment tools that can identify candidates for release who would be lower risk to commit another crime, and lower risk not to come back to court. The jurisdictions that have done this successfully have incorporated as a model the introduction of evidence-based risk tools to identify who would be eligible for release. It might be a probation department, electronic monitoring, GPS, things like that are among the things we're evaluating.
CAVANAUGH: I also want to touch on another major theme in this report and that is trying to dissuade counties from going to the option of building more jail facilities in order to house the people that are now staying in counties rather than go to prison. And I know that San Diego has a request to expand the east mesa detention facility and building a new women's detention facility. Do you think San Diego needs to do that?
DOOLEY-SAMMULI: Well, I think -- we need to look at the population behind jail. The population in jail. We need to make decisions about construction and space needs based on who we think actually belongs behind bars. What we don't want to do is just say under existing policies we need more room. Because what we know about our existing policies is they're not good enough because they have contributed to this statewide awful recidivism rate of 67.5% of people leaving prison going back. We've got this revolving door, we need to stop it. That means some of the changes the chief has mentioned. Dealing with the massive pretrial detention population that are sucking up -- wasting beds. As well as monitoring, okay, what is the population that we do need to keep behind bars? It's not as simple as saying that jail construction is never necessary. For example, the women's facility that's being built is intended to replace, so that another facility would be closed. The ACLU is very concerned about jail conditions. People will be spending longer sentences in county jails now. We recognize that. So it's not a yes or no. But it's how do we make that determination?
CAVANAUGH: I'd like to get your take on that
JENKINS: I really appreciate Margaret's that you feel response because it's not a simple question. We know that with realignment and with the challenges that are being placed on San Diego County locally, for example just trying to be brief about it, we and exclusive that sheriff gore and his jail system is expected to manage two thousand more felony offenders that have to serve time in his jail, and at the time realignment started, he only had 800 beds. Our plan right now does support a sheriff's effort to do a jail expansion, but it is to expand a reentry facility. So in other words, the CCP and sheriff gore in particular are not attempting to build more cells to accommodate the population that's actually coming back as a result of realignment. In fact, what it really is an attempt to do is to be smart on crime in terms of part of our plan has to do with providing expanded reentry services for those folks who are sentenced to serve time in jail locally. One of the impacts is again because they're serving time locally, jail stays will lengthen here locally. That means that we have to be very smart on who goes to jail, how long they stay in jail, but the types of services that are provided while they're in custody so they're not simply warehoused, so the expansion that's included, that we're talking about at the CCP here at San Diego is to expand a reentry program right now that has 100 beds, and about 75 participants in it. So the 400 bed construction goes forward, that would give us a capacity of 500 individuals who would go through intervention services prior to their release and return back to the community.
DOOLEY-SAMMULI: That raises an issue. At the state level, when we saw the California department of corrections and rehabilitation talk about rehabilitation, they did a lot of talking. But it comes down to where does the money go? Once this facility is built, will those programs actually be funded? And that's what will be so critical.
CAVANAUGH: It's a great time to take a look at how this is working. We are out of time, but I want to let everyone know that the ACLU report of California at a cross roads is on our website, KPBS.org. Thank you both very much.
DOOLEY-SAMMULI: Thank you.
JENKINS: Thank you for the opportunity.