Originally posted at the Public Policy Institute of California.
By Linda Strean.

Local law enforcement and corrections officials have risen to the challenge of public safety realignment, a panel of local and state officials concluded last week. They also concurred that big challenges remain.

Four years ago, local officials had to adapt—and adapt quickly—to this historic policy shift in California. Prompted by a federal court order to reduce prison overcrowding, the state shifted responsibility for incarcerating and supervising low-level felons from the state to the counties, based on the idea that the locals could do a better job. The panelists at a PPIC event in Sacramento assessed the hurdles they’ve had to overcome and the challenges that remain.

“We’ve adapted and we are adapting,” said Lee Seale, Sacramento County’s chief probation officer. “We’re better as a result of it,” he said, noting that hundreds of offenders are enrolled in drug treatment or other rehabilitative programming who did not get these services before. Among the issues corrections officials are still coping with, according to Seale and the other panelists, is a jail population with many challenges, including mental health issues.

Linda Penner, chair of the Board of State and Community Corrections, serves as the governor’s liaison on realignment issues with county law enforcement officials statewide. When realignment began, she was the chief probation officer of Fresno County. She likened the magnitude and speed of realignment to “drinking from a fire hose.”

“Counties had to demonstrate their nimbleness and creativity,” she said. Initially, case files were transferred from the state to the county using manila envelopes because computer systems were incompatible. The incompatibility problem was resolved in about a year, she said.

Adam Christianson, now serving his third term as sheriff of Stanislaus County, was a realignment skeptic. The governor, he said, knew him as “the difficult sheriff from Stanislaus County.” His county’s jail was already at maximum capacity before realignment began. The jail, built in 1954, had no space for treatment or the programs that realignment’s proponents envisioned as key in reducing recidivism.

Things have changed, he said, and so has the department’s culture. The county is building new facilities with program and treatment areas, classroom space, and a mental health care unit. Partnerships with community-based organizations—which the sheriff says are essential—are helping the county provide program opportunities for offenders.

As a result, he said, “The difficult sheriff from Stanislaus County isn’t so difficult anymore.”

Before the discussion, PPIC senior fellow Magnus Lofstrom presented the findings of Public Safety Realignment: Impacts So Far, which he authored with PPIC research associate Brandon Martin.