I’ve argued for a long time that county government, with its more realistic view of crime and local knowledge, can hold the key to resolving our endless prison crisis if they can take back their prisoners and the resources locked up in state prisons. Hidden in the depths of Governor Schwarzenegger’s “May Budget Revisions” (the adjustments to the annual January budge proposal that is based on actual revenue returns during April tax season and thus considered far more realistic), the governor has included a proposal to have some state prisoners serve their time at the county level:
To improve the success of felony probationers, and other offenders supervised or programmed at the local level, and reduce jail and prison incarceration, the Administration proposes a system of block grants to provide evidence-based programming and other probation and jail services at the local level. The block grants will be funded from a portion of state savings generated by having non-sex offender, non-serious, non-violent offenders convicted with sentences of three years or less to serve their felony sentence in local jails. The state will provide the counties with approximately $11,500 per offender, to be allocated at the local level, for programs and services such as probation programming, drug courts, and alternative custody. A decrease of $243.8 million in 2010-11 is associated with this proposal.
Not as splashy or as publicized as the Governators’ January proposal to link prison and higher education funding, this idea reflects some of the best ideas in correctional reform including devolution from state to county and an emphasis on funding programs that can prove success based on empirical evidence (had we followed that model during the 1980s and 1990s, we would have stopped sending more people to prison long ago). As is typical in California in the era of Governing through Crime, the program comes wrapped in promises that it won’t apply to prisoners the public really fears “sex offenders”, “serious offenders,” “violent offenders.” These broad categories likely hold many individuals who could be managed more effectively (and more efficiently) at the county level.
If he gives the devolution (from state to county) solution more of his public attention and charisma, it could turn out to be the most important legacy of the Governator. Schwarzenegger deserves huge credit for, in effect, declaring the era of “Big Incarceration Government” over, but until now his forward proposals have lacked seriousness and vision. Perhaps the action hero knows that many failures can be forgiven in a strong ending.
The May Revise (as it is often called) also includes an intriguing note that the state is shifting its policies toward committing sex offenders serving state prison sentences to the state’s violent sexual predator program of indeterminate confinement following prison with the result of fewer expected inmates in the program (which has become an expensive new death row with little prospect of release for its residents). As an adjustment to the mental health portion of the budget, the May Revise includes the following:
A decrease of $7.2 million in the Sex Offender Commitment Program to reflect anticipated savings in the Sexually Violent Predator Program primarily due to a shift in the type of referrals from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
If anyone has the details behind this shift, please comment.
A version of this article was originally published in Jonathan Simon’s Governing Through Crime site.