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.
"We haven't had an overarching initiative that we've all been required to sit around a table and work on. This has kind of brought us together, and we've discovered other areas where we need to work together as well," Hennessy said.
That has sparked new programs. For example, San Francisco just started to bring those about to be paroled from state prison into the local jail before their release in order to integrate them into the San Francisco rehabilitation system. "We're creating a reentry cycle for them so they aren't just getting off the bus and landing here and going directly to Probation for an interview," Hennessy said. "Now, we're going to try to bring them here 60 days early and provide them with wrap-around services, so that we can get them established, get them housing, give them the best opportunity we can for a successful reentry."
With counties now responsible for the people local judges send to jail, there's more interest in reforming sentencing laws and exploring more progressive and community-based alternatives to incarceration, which is the focus of the new San Francisco Sentencing Commission that held its first meeting last month.
"District Attorney [George] Gascon is very supportive of Realignment, DA's Office spokesperson Stephanie Ong Stillman told us. "He has said it could have the greatest impact on justice reform in decades. San Francisco is on its way to being a model for the state."
But the flip-side of San Francisco's advantages has been a growing backlash against Realignment in conservative counties with disproportionately high incarceration rates and a lack of capacity in their jails – which is often a byproduct of combining tough-on-crimes policies with anti-tax attitudes, something Ammiano is now dealing with in Sacramento.
"There is a lot of push-back from the Republican Party and alarmism over Realignment," Ammiano said, noting that he's just waiting to be hit with anecdotal stories about a transferred inmate committing some horrific crime, even though Realignment only involves low-level convicts who committed non-violent and non-sexual crimes.
Ammiano will work with a newly constituted Board of State and Community Corrections that will distribute funds to counties that need to beef up each their jail capacities or their treatment programs. That mix hasn't been set yet, but Ammiano said he won't support counties that simply seek more state resources to maintain high incarceration rates.
"In one way, it's perturbing and the other way, it's exciting," Ammiano said. "For me, the more the county has programs, the more sympathetic I'll be."
Yet in this era of chronically underfunded government entities, even San Francisco is strained. Hennessy and Brin say Realignment has brought more inmates with serious mental health issues into the jails for longer periods of time -- and that has stretched their resources.
"That's where we lack, even before AB 109, and I'd like to get more people in there who are experts in the mental health field," Brin said.
Hennessy agreed, but added, "The mental health program we have is extremely good, it's just overtaxed because we're seeing many more people, and this is across the state." Mental health isn't the only issue. "The other thing that is a concern is housing for people," Hennessy said, explaining that the city needs both supervised housing and regular low-income housing for former inmates returning to the community. Maintaining the Sheriff's Department progressive legacy in the face of new challenges is one reason why Mirkarimi sees danger in Lee's decision to overturn that election and consolidate more power in the Mayor's Office. "It's important that the independence of the Sheriff's Department be preserved," Mirkarimi said. "Programs can easily be changed by successive mayoral administration if there isn't that check on power." But for now, Brin said San Francisco's various law enforcement officials have been working well to realize the potential of Realignment: "The collaboration between the criminal justice partners has just been really, really great. Everybody is working together to try to accomplish the same thing."