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ACLU report offers alternatives on realignment of criminal justice system

Stanley O. Williford | 3/21/2012, 5 p.m.

Noting that the nation's criminal justice system is out of whack, a report titled "Public Safety Realignment: California at a Crossroads" by the American Civil Liberties Union of California, indicates that the state is facing a rare opportunity--and with funds--in which to fix the problem.

However, based on a review by the organization, it found that at least 32 of the state's 58 counties plan to go the way they've always gone and expand jail capacity using AB 109 funds or other tax dollars, even though there are "more effective and affordable options for addressing jail overcrowding."

Although the United States has "less than 5 percent of the world's population," the report says in its introduction, it "has nearly 25 percent of the world's incarcerated population."

"The state of California has long held the dubious distinction of housing one of the largest prison and jail populations within the U.S. Despite extremely high state and local incarceration rates, California's recidivism rate--the rate at which people released from prison are returned to prison--is among the highest in the nation, at 67.5 percent," the report says.

"Unequal treatment in the criminal justice system--especially in drug law enforcement--is one of the primary drivers of inequality in our society today. A higher proportion of African Americans are incarcerated in California today than were Blacks in Apartheid South Africa. Latinos are now the largest group incarcerated in California state prisons. The criminal justice system selectively incarcerates to deal with mental health, drug abuse, and economic and social problems that can never be solved simply by locking more people behind bars."

Because of this crisis in prison overcrowding, the Public Safety Realignment Act (AB 109) was approved. It was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on April 5, 2011.This and subsequent legislation "tasked the counties with implementing the most significant change in criminal justice in California in more than three decades . . . ."

The legislation--both AB 109 and AB 117--essentially attempt to "close the revolving door [or no longer house] of low-level inmates cycling in and out of state prisons," according to a fact sheet from the state's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "It is the cornerstone of California's solution for reducing the number of inmates in the state's 33 prisons to 137.5 percent design capacity by May 24, 2013, as ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court."

The 100-plus-page ACLU report was written by Allen Hopper, Margaret Dooley-Sammuli and Kelli Evans. Among many other issues, it asserts that:

*The state's prison system has become a revolving door

*Most people in California jails have not been convicted of a crime

*More than 50,000 of the 71,000 Californians held in a county jail on a given day are awaiting trial

*In addition to the human cost, there is a high financial cost of pretrial incarceration. (It costs $100 a day to incarcerate someone waiting for trial, but only $2.50 a day to monitor someone in a pretrial program.)