California's 'Great Realignment'

At a recent Leadership Forum in Sacramento, California leaders discussed recent responsibilities passed down from the state to counties in light of a $10 billion budget deficit.
by , | October 7, 2011 AT 3:00 PM

As of Monday, California's new sentencing law takes place -- one that aims to keep as many offenders as possible out of state prisons to reduce the population by 30,000.

This change is just one part of a much larger realignment proposal that California Gov. Jerry Brown submitted back in January to bring government closer to the people -- by realigning state public safety, mental health, substance abuse and child and adult protective service programs to the counties.

Certain parts of this "great realignment" were a topic of discussion at yesterday's GOVERNING California Leadership Forum in Sacramento, where state leaders spoke about both the positives and negatives in the change.

On the whole, it's a risky proposition for the state, said Kelly Brooks, legislative representative from the California State Association of Counties. "But we're willing to embark upon it because of the state's financial situation," she said. "Counties are aware that when state budget is bad, it's bad for us, so we're willing to be part of solution."

For the state prison population to be reduced by 30,000, Terri McDonald, director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's Division of Adult Institutions, said the state is giving local agencies responsibility for keeping certain low-level offenders out of prison, which they can do by either holding them in county jails or placing them under out-of-custody supervision, such as work furlough or in-home detention.

"The state of California is facing a significant challenge, fiscally and with prison overcrowding," McDonald said. "Anybody sentenced after October 1 who doesn't have prior offense will serve their time under local supervision. But all [current] offenders are released after finishing sentence -- this is not a mass early release of offenders. They finished their sentences."

As for parole violators, they cannot be returned to state prisons to serve their time, McDonald said; the realignment keeps them local to help acclimate them back into society. "Realignment becomes a measured way in which the state deals with overcrowding," she said, "rather than what would have been an early release of offenders without a strong plan."

As in all changes, there are both proponents and opponents to this realignment. But David Maxwell-Jolly, undersecretary of the California Health and Human Services agency, said he thinks it will give counties the greatest possible flexibility in managing local funding for community services. "Local governments," he said, "have articulated that we want services delivered in local communities that are closer to the communities being served."

The changes in mental health, substance abuse, foster care and child welfare, and adult protective services, said Maxwell-Jolly, are significant. "All of those programs, like so many, are delivered through a partnership through state and counties -- whether that's child support, food stamps, child care," he said. "Almost all programs we deliver involve state/county cooperation. In the context of realignment, [these changes] will give counties the greatest possible flexibility."

Even after the realignment that occurred in 1991, Dave Lesher, director of government affairs for the Public Policy Institute of California, noted there was a disconnect between funding authority and localities, but in this new realignment, "there is a hope for a win-win-win," he said. "It more clearly defines what the state's role is, and for consumers and citizens, it's delivery of service that's cheaper -- at least that's the discussion and the hope."