Nearly four years ago, California's 58 counties and their jails began taking on some of the state's burden of housing and supervising nonviolent felons, and contrary to widespread belief, the shift wasn't merely a result of federal court orders to reduce the state prison population. In fact, policymakers had been urging this public safety realignment for more than a decade, arguing that local authorities were better positioned than the state to create and monitor programs to prevent inmates, once released to their old neighborhoods, from returning to crime.
Many counties were initially reluctant to perform their new duties but soon saw the sense in keeping jurisdiction over local nonviolent criminals from the time of their arrest and prosecution through their sentences and their reentry into society. Bolstered with state funding, counties have experimented with programs to identify when substance abuse or mental illness plays a role in crime and to treat affected offenders before, during and after incarceration, or even to divert them from jail in the first place. Counties are working to find the best ways to provide housing, healthcare and employment, to serve not only nonviolent offenders but their victims, their families and their neighborhoods. There have been many successes and many lessons to learn.
If only Los Angeles County would learn them. The state's (by far) largest county ought to be a leader in smart and effective justice, but as other counties have spent their state realignment dollars on programs intended to reduce recidivism, L.A. County has only dabbled in such initiatives and instead spends most of its realignment money on old-school law enforcement, monitoring and punishment.
Even now, with felony arrests and prosecutions down and as jail crowding has eased because of Proposition 47 — which reduced several felonies to misdemeanors — the county supervisors face pressure to satisfy the long lists of unsatisfied wants and needs of the sheriff, the district attorney and other law enforcement departments. But the supervisors, now in the midst of their budget decision-making process, must know that there will never come a time when they have enough money for everything.
In order to embrace realignment and smart justice, they must revamp outmoded contracting rules that currently focus on minutiae rather than results and thus stand between would-be service providers and the county's unmet needs. They must get their departments to work together to serve common goals. And they must choose, finally, to direct funding to programs geared toward keeping people out of jail, rather than in.