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The ACLU's 12-Step Plan to End California's Addiction to Incarceration

Allen Hopper,
ACLU of Northern California
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August 17, 2011

The Golden State has a problem. An addiction problem. California is addicted to incarceration. We’ve hit rock bottom, and it’s time for an intervention. To help the state break the addiction, yesterday the ACLU of California sent a 12-step plan to every county in the state, as part of a larger ACLU comprehensive public safety realignment report. The report urges a fundamental shift in criminal justice policies toward smart on crime alternatives to incarceration.

California is facing unprecedented challenges. State and local governments continue to struggle to close record budget deficits, making deep cuts in core programs including public safety, education and social services. On top of that, the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Plata ordered the state to immediately remedy its unconstitutionally overcrowded prison system, which is so overburdened that it is jeopardizing the health and safety of inmates and staff alike.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s new public safety realignment legislation, A.B. 109, attempts to address the Plata decision by “realigning” public safety responsibilities from state prisons and parole officials to county governments. If California counties implement this legislation properly, the state is poised for a paradigm shift in how we deal with crime, punishment and sentencing. The legislative findings contained in A.B. 109 are remarkable in their acknowledgment of the utter failure of 30 years of “lock ’em up and throw away the key” mentality in California:

“Criminal justice policies that rely on building and operating more prisons to address community safety concerns are not sustainable, and will not result in improved public safety…California must reinvest its criminal justice resources to support community-based corrections programs and evidence-based practices that will achieve improved public safety returns…”

The state is counting on A.B. 109 realignment to reduce the prison population and bring it into compliance with the Plata mandate; most people sentenced after October 1 for low-level felonies will be subject to local jurisdiction rather than being sent to state prison. But instead of simply adding local jail capacity to handle this new population at the county level, A.B. 109 instructs counties to employ sanctions and services that have been demonstrated to reduce recidivism and increase public safety — and cost less than incarceration.

That’s where the recommendations in the ACLU’s report come in. Among other things, the report urges counties to adopt new programs to reduce costs and lower jail populations. These include pre-arrest diversion — which diverts appropriate low-level offenders into rehabilitation and treatment instead of booking them into jail and overburdened court systems — and revamping immigration enforcement policies, which have thus far left county jails responsible for housing too many federal immigration detainees.

A.B. 109 realignment is a step in the right direction, but even the state legislative analyst’s office acknowledges realignment alone will not be enough to solve California’s overincarceration problem. That’s why the ACLU is also calling for meaningful statewide sentencing reform to reduce low-level drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and for a state sentencing commission to evaluate and reform California sentencing policies.

California counties are at a fork in the criminal justice road. It makes no sense to stay on the current path, cycling and recycling people through overcrowded and broken jail and prison systems that fail to address the underlying problems. It’s time to admit we have a problem, and to take a new approach.

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