Locking down reforms

San Francisco is a model for counties wrestling with Realignment -- but more challenges and opportunities remain



Realignment, California's year-old program of diverting more inmates and parolees from state prison to county jails and probation offices, was borne of necessity: The state faced a severe budget crisis and had been ordered by the federal courts to reduce the population in its overcrowded prisons. But Realignment is proving to be a real opportunity to address inmates' needs and reduce recidivism, particularly in San Francisco, where progressive notions of rehabilitation and redemption have deep roots.

"Realignment is the most significant criminal justice reform in decades," says Assembly member Tom Ammiano, the San Francisco Democrat who chairs the Assembly Public Safety Committee and has helped oversee the process. "The motivation of many of us came from things that were thwarted, like sentencing and parole reform, in Sacramento for many years."

San Francisco was uniquely positioned to thrive under the new system and to be a model for other counties that seek to improve on the 70 percent recidivism rate among state prison inmates, and the myriad problems and costs that spawns. Former Sheriff Michael Hennessey brought a variety of innovative educational and support services into the jail during his 32-year reign that ended last year (see "The unlikely sheriff," 12/20/11).

"It's more than an opportunity. It's in line with the Michael Hennessey doctrine of enhancing public safety while elevating the idea of redemption, and I subscribe to that," said suspended Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, who successfully ran as Hennessey's endorsed heir before Mayor Ed Lee ousted him over domestic violence allegations. "Michael Hennessey made famous the rehabilitation programs inside the jail and outside the jail."

San Francisco was also in a good position as both a manageably sized city and county, and one that had room for the influx of inmates. It was ordered by the courts in the 1980s to reduce its crowded jail population – the peak jail population of 2,300 is now down to about 1,550 – and gained even more capacity last year when the SFPD's crime lab scandal resulted in hundreds of drug cases being thrown out by the courts.

"It's something that makes sense for San Francisco," Acting Sheriff Vicky Hennessy told us. "We're doing better than most other counties because we had the bed space and we had community programs. Michael Hennessey is a visionary...and he got these community programs out there."

Undersheriff Ellen Brin, who oversees the jail, said the main difference among inmates that San Francisco is dealing with under Realignment – a total of 2,258 in the jail over the last year, staying an average of 60 days each, and another 306 convicts under post-release supervision – is that they're in local custody longer than before.

"It's sort of the same population we've always dealt with, but maybe we're dealing with them on a longer term," she said.

That creates some challenges – Brin said there are more inmates who are a little more hardened and "more sophisticated" – but it also gives local programs more of a chance to help the inmates. That was one of the arguments for Assembly Bill 109, the main legislation that created Realignment, along with five other related bills.

"That was the whole plan about AB 109 is the counties do it better," Brin said. "For us, we've been doing these programs for so long, with reentry and other community programs, so it's easy for us to manage this population because they're here longer."

Realignment has also prompted more collaboration among the affected local agencies – particularly the Sheriff's Department, Adult Probation Services, and the District Attorney's Office – and their counterparts on the state level.