At One-Year Anniversary of Prison Realignment, ACLU Says California Failing to Enact Needed Criminal Justice Reforms
San Francisco - One year after the implementation of California's historic prison realignment plan, the state has failed to adopt the kinds of reforms necessary to ensure its success and a lasting reduction both in the number of people behind bars and recidivism rates, the American Civil Liberties Union of California said in a new assessment released today.
New polling data released by the ACLU today shows overwhelming public support for evidenced-based, smart-on-crime reforms like alternatives to incarceration for low-level, non-violent offenders and defendants charged with low-level crimes while they await trial. But fearful of being labeled "soft on crime" by the state's law enforcement lobby that maintains a knee-jerk, over-incarceration view and is aggressively fighting any change to the failed public safety status quo, such reforms have so far failed to garner the support of state legislators.
"The era in which policymakers lend undue credence to law enforcement fear-mongering must end," said Allen Hopper, director of criminal justice and drug policy for the ACLU of California. "Californians have made very clear that they demand the politics of fear give way to the politics of fiscal responsibility and evidence-based solutions."
According to the ACLU's assessment, while the state's prison population has decreased by nearly 25,000 during the past year, counties have increased their own jail capacity by more than 7,000 beds, spending tens of millions of dollars in state realignment dollars to expand jail capacity. Billions of additional dollars in the form of state lease-revenue bonds are in the pipeline for even more jail construction that would create an additional 10,000 beds. This despite the ACLU's new polling data showing that 75 percent of state voters favor investing public money in more prevention and alternatives to jail for non-violent offenders.
"Voters want politicians who are smart on crime and are tired of wasting billions of taxpayer dollars every year locking up low-level, non-violent offenders at the expense of public health, college tuition, primary education and the overall health of the state," said Hanna Dershowitz, criminal justice and drug policy advocate for the ACLU of California.
Among the missed opportunities from 2012 the ACLU cites in its assessment is a modest pre-trial reform bill, SB210, introduced by Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Oakland), that would have provided a framework by which pre-trial detainees deemed by courts to pose a minimal risk to public safety could be released to community supervision while they await trial. Nearly 70 percent of the state's county jail population is comprised of pre-trial detainees, the vast majority of whom pose no risk to public safety but who cannot afford to post bail so remain locked up at an annual cost to taxpayers of tens of millions of dollars. According to the ACLU's new polling data, 70 percent of state voters support allowing courts to require supervised monitoring of low-level, non-violent defendants while they await trial.
"While there are some exceptions, far too many counties are using pursuing business as usual in the realigned era," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, senior policy advocate for the ACLU of California. "Too many counties are pushing ahead with jail expansion plans without first instituting better pre-trial release programs, which would provide an effective and safe way to reduce jail crowding at the county level."
The ACLU in its assessment recommends several things be undertaken in the next year to help ensure realignment's success:
- Enact statewide front-end sentencing reforms to expand county flexibility to manage jail space and support successful re-entry, including revising the penalty for possession of a small amount of drugs for personal use from a felony to a misdemeanor;
- Amend statewide pre-trial detention laws;
- Mandate standardized data collection and reporting requirements to ensure policymakers' ability to monitor which policies are working to reduce recidivism and reduce reliance on incarceration and
- Revise rules on how state funding can be used in order to reduce recidivism and increase use of cost-effective alternatives to incarceration instead of simply expanding jail capacity
"Our political leaders must reject the law enforcement lobby's fear-mongering and insist upon programs and policies that maximize public safety return for taxpayer investment," said Hopper. "We call on Sacramento to step up to the challenge and make the policy changes necessary to begin to fix our state's broken system."
A complete copy of the ACLU's assessment and public polling results are available online.