Balance needed on jail spending vs. rehabilitation

Via Sacramento Bee

Ever since lawmakers approved Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan for public safety “realignment,” local officials have engaged in a spirited debate about how much money should go to incarceration vs. rehabilitation.

In a letter to Sacramento County chief probation officer Don Meyer last week, Sacramento Assemblyman Roger Dickinson asked the county’s Community Corrections Partnership to revisit its decision to give the bulk of the state Public Safety Realignment funding to the sheriff.

He is right to do so. The Community Corrections Partnership – which includes the sheriff, public defender, district attorney, Sacramento city police chief, the county’s chief probation officer and a representative from the county’s Health and Human Services Department – voted narrowly to use most of the state realignment money to expand jail capacity.

Under realignment, more parole violators and nonviolent, less serious offenders were to be sentenced to serve their time locally, Sheriff Scott Jones argued that he needed more jail capacity to preserve public safety. Other partnership members wanted realignment money to go to alternatives focused on rehabilitation, such as drug and alcohol programs, housing, education and mental health counseling.

Those arguing for alternatives lost out to the sheriff. However, when new inmates didn’t show up in the numbers expected initially, Sheriff Jones delayed reopening a section of the jail for almost two months. The delay saved approximately $1.4 million. Some argue that money should be reallocated to other public safety needs, including rehabilitation.

Sheriff Jones has resisted returning the money. He points out that realigned inmates are beginning to arrive in large numbers, that there are almost 500 of them in Sacramento jails now. In addition, his department lost $5 million when a slimmed-down state corrections department pulled its contract with the county to house state prisoners, creating a deficit in the jail that those realignment monies can help erase.

County budget officials must demand strict accounting from Sheriff Jones.

If the state is pulling its inmates out of Sacramento county jails, then jail costs ought to go down. Realignment money should not be used to backfill for lost contracts, but for strictly realignment purposes.

The question for the future is what should be done with realignment money when the sheriff or probation or health and human services departments don’t use all the funds allocated to them for whatever reason.

Other counties have worked out arrangements in which the community corrections partnership gets an opportunity to reassess needs and reallocate funds as needed. Sheriff Jones has said he is open to initiating that kind of process here. All the stakeholders ought to agree to such a process.

The underlying issue remains the same, incarceration vs. rehabilitation.

As Assemblyman Dickinson argues in his letter, “programs dealing with substance abuse, mental health and educational/vocational problems have a greater degree of success of keeping people from reoffending … than does strictly incarcerating these individuals.”

Realignment was intended to give local communities the opportunity to implement innovative, locally relevant rehabilitation programs, not the same old failed strict incarceration regimes of the past. Sacramento should not pass up on that opportunity.

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