If you haven’t been hit by the realization that California has transformed into a prison state in recent years, you might want to prepare yourself.
Starting Saturday, the state’s criminal justice system will be coming to an area near you, in the form of recently released inmates, freed from lockup under California’s sweeping “realignment” plan to reduce overcrowding in state prisons.
For many, it’s a cause for concern, primarily because it’s the biggest change in the penal system in 40 years. But in some circles, it’s also a time for cautious optimism, to figure out if getting people out from behind bars can result in less crime and save money — a sort of new take on the cell being half-full.
For reform-minded prosecutors like San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, the potential release of thousands of nonviolent felons and non-sexual offenders offers a chance to rethink the way our courts and our crime-fighters do business.
The state has been trying to assure critics that the release of low-risk offenders will not necessarily result in a threat to public safety, but this is a program that comes without much money and no guarantees.
As a result, DAs from around the state have been looking at everything from sentencing guidelines to an expansion of rehabilitation programs. But even the most optimistic among them admit that the future is a complete unknown.
“We have to be more sophisticated about how we assess risk,” Gascón told me recently. “Everybody has to be more thoughtful about how we do our jobs, and for us that means taking a look at how we decide to prosecute cases.”
Much of the guesswork involves the numbers. San Francisco officials believe about 1,000 prisoners will be released here, yet no one has a final figure on the total released statewide, with the estimate somewhere between 44,000 and 50,000. They only know that they will be rolled out gradually as the counties absorb and grapple with a new influx of inmates.
This brave new world will put much of the pressure on adult probation officers, who must monitor the behavior of a new populace not guaranteed jobs or housing. But it will impact every part of the criminal justice network, likely stretching its resources to unforeseen levels.
Gascón said he believes San Francisco is “ahead of the curve” in coping with the controversial program, which he has been preparing for since he took office in January. As part of that planning, his office plans to hire a sentencing analyst to reassess the numbers related to crimes in San Francisco and those that commit them, to help determine what types of punishment should be sought out by county prosecutors.
This week Gascón, along with Chief Probation Officer Wendy Still and Supervisors Scott Wiener and Malia Cohen, introduced legislation to create a new Sentencing Commission that will look at ideas to reduce recidivism and set “sentencing strategies” for low-level offenders. Gascón said the earlier introduction of a series of neighborhood courts this year should help San Francisco deal with the minor crimes for which people had been previously sentenced.
The commission is also expected to consider changes to the penal code and to make recommendations to supervisors and the Mayor’s Office on budget decisions affecting jail and rehabilitation programs. One part of the overall review, however, will not change.
“One thing we definitely want to do is be very aggressive on violent crimes,” Gascón said. “The goal is to use a similar assessment tool in looking at the records of people who pose the greatest risk to society.”
Still, there is no getting around the fact that while the program focuses on low-risk convicts, the people getting out of prison passes were lawbreakers, probably multiple times. And it won’t be long before everyone in county jail gets out after serving just half their sentence.
The upside? There is likely to be a lot more space in jail, should San Francisco and the other counties need it.
A recent Los Angeles Times poll found that 80 percent of voters support realignment, though they were less clear about approving taxes to support it.
Yet they are fed up with runaway prison spending, at least, somewhat nervously, for now.