To trim its bulging prison population and cut costs, California is about to gamble on a strategy no other state has tried — unload the responsibility for punishing and rehabilitating thousands of nonviolent felons from the state prison system to local communities.
The state’s new massive “realignment” plan — which begins Saturday — amounts to a dramatic retreat from California’s costly, tough-on-crime, lock-’em-up approach. No matter how slowly the new strategy unfolds, it will ultimately put more low-level offenders on the streets sooner than they would be under the current rules, either because they are enrolled in rehabilitation programs outside the jail walls, or are serving shorter periods in jail or on post-release supervision.
“It’s the biggest change in the criminal justice system in 35 years,” since the state switched to imposing fixed-term sentences on most crimes, said Judge Phil Pennypacker, who presides over the criminal division of Santa Clara County Superior Court.
Still, the state has been quick to assure the public that switching low-risk convicts from prison blues to county jail jumpsuits will not jeopardize public safety. Killers, robbers and sex offenders like Philip Garrido, who kidnapped 11-year-old Jaycee Dugard and held her in Antioch for 18 years, will remain under the state’s watch. No inmates will be released early from prison and bused home. Instead, the 58 counties will gradually begin housing and supervising nonviolent criminals and parole violators as they are sentenced or released.
Despite such assurances, California’s plan — which comes after the U.S. Supreme Court in May found that the state’s overcrowded prisons constitute cruel and unusual punishment — has touched off a fierce debate: Will changing how we punish low-level criminals like meth users and shoplifters make California more dangerous? Or might it actually make the state safer?
Let’s hope it is safer, but I have my doubts.
It will only take one case involving a child and Californians will remember Jerry Brown’s history of being soft on crime.
Voters will have Governor Moonbeam’s head on a platter.
Let’s hope I am wrong.