California Prison Downsizing and Its Impact on Local Criminal Justice Systems

32 Pages Posted: 24 Jun 2014 Last revised: 30 Jun 2015

Date Written: June 23, 2014


Passage of California’s Public Safety Realignment Act (AB 109) initiated the most sweeping correctional experiment in recent history. Launched on October 1, 2011, Realignment shifted responsibility for most lower-level offenders from the state to California’s 58 counties. By mid-2013, more than 100,000 felons had been diverted from state prison or parole to county jail or probation.

This report summarizes the results of interviews conducted with California stakeholders responsible for implementing the law. Stanford Law School researchers conducted 125 interviews in 21 counties to produce a snapshot of how California is faring under Realignment so far. We talked with police, sheriffs, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation and parole agents, victim advocates, offenders, and social service representatives. Our goal was to determine how Realignment had influenced their agency’s work and what changes they would make to the law.

Our interviews revealed a justice system undergoing remarkable changes, arguably unprecedented in depth and scope. Stakeholders’ opinions varied widely, and their comments reflected their role in the system more than the county they represented. Overall, probation officials were the most enthusiastic champions of Realignment, welcoming the momentum the legislation provided their rehabilitation focus. Probation departments have opened day reporting centers, expanded the use of risk assessment tools, and worked hard with community partners to establish quality evidence-based programs for offenders. Public defenders are also optimistic but expressed concerns about the longer county jail terms their clients face and the conditions under which they are served. Conversely, prosecuting attorneys generally gave Realignment negative reviews, lamenting their loss of discretion under the law. Judges expressed mixed opinions, although most were concerned about a loss of discretion and said AB 109 had greatly increased the courts’ workload. Law enforcement — both front line police and sheriffs — varied more than any other group in their assessment of Realignment, with their opinions largely influenced by local jail capacity. While most police applauded the spirit of Realignment, including the expansion of local control and treatment options for offenders, all of those interviewed worried about declining public safety. Sheriffs were challenged by overloaded county jails, which in many counties have been strained by a flood of inmates and a tougher criminal population that has increased the likelihood of jail violence. Sheriffs also noted that longer jail stays were challenging their ability to provide adequate medical and mental health care, and that crowding was forcing them to release some offenders early. On the positive end of the spectrum, most stakeholders said Realignment had spawned increased collaboration at all levels of the criminal justice system and a more holistic view of offender management.

Stakeholders recommended several changes to Realignment, suggesting that the Legislature: (1) allow an offender’s entire criminal history to be considered when determining whether the county or the state will supervise a parolee; (2) cap county jail sentences at a maximum of three years; and (3) permit certain repeated technical violations to be punished with a prison sentence. Other top concerns related to jail overcrowding, the lack of a statewide offender database for probationers, the disuse of split sentencing, and a lack of funding for evidence-based programming, particularly for mentally ill offenders.

Suggested Citation

Petersilia, Joan, California Prison Downsizing and Its Impact on Local Criminal Justice Systems (June 23, 2014). Harvard Law & Policy Review, Vol. 8, 2014. Available at SSRN:

Joan Petersilia (Contact Author)

Stanford University ( email )

Stanford, CA 94305
United States

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