Los Angeles Daily Journal article

Los Angeles Daily Journal, May 10, 2013

Many smell political posturing in Maldonado's call for realignment repeal

By Hamed Aleaziz

Daily Journal Staff Writer

Gov. Jerry Brown's landmark criminal justice legislation known as realignment is facing heavy criticism from a potential electoral foe.

On Wednesday, former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, widely expected to be planning a run for governor, announced at a press conference a plan to put an initiative on the 2014 ballot to repeal realignment, a 2011 legislative move that shifted responsibility for various criminal justice functions from the state to counties.

"The governor uses a fancy word called realignment," Maldonado said, according to media reports. "At the end of the day, it's early release. ... A shell game is what it is." Maldonado said increasing prison capacity could be a potential solution.

The call to roll back realignment has gained traction with some conservatives who contend that realignment allows potentially dangerous prisoners to be released early. But many onlookers speculated that Maldonado's effort is little more than an attention-seeking move to score political points.

"It's a bit of grandstanding on its own terms," said Robert Weisberg, a realignment expert and co-director of Stanford Law School's Criminal Justice Center. "Even if you thought that it was a terrible idea, it's just wildly impractical to talk about repeal. ... It's already caused so many interactive changes with all the parts of the system that you can't unring the bell - you simply can't."

Realignment was implemented in response to federal court orders requiring officials to reduce overcrowding in state prisons. It shifted responsibility for certain offenders to county jails, moved parole operations for certain offenders to the county level and gave counties more discretion over funding decisions. As a result, it reduced the state prison population by more than 25,000 prisoners.

One thing that hasn't happened as the result of realignment, said Jeffrey Callison, press secretary for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, is the early release of prisoners.

"No one has been released from prison early, because [under] realignment no one is released early from prison ... and no one will be," Callison said. "Anyone who's sentenced to prison serves a full sentence according to the law, as they did before realignment, as they do today and as they would continue to do."

Others, like Lenore Anderson, the director of Californians for Safety and Justice, said Maldonado's plan is yet another example of officials playing on fears for political gain.

"It's disappointing that this type of fear-mongering still has a place in California politics, considering the fact that the politicizing of crime is what led to decades of ineffective policies - and our current crisis with the federal courts - in the first place," Anderson, a former policy head at the San Francisco district attorney's office, said via email.

But not all were so dismissive of Maldonado's plan. Some realignment critics maintain that Brown's legislation is in dire need of reform.

"Realignment is the single worst idea in the history of California criminal law," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. "The federal court order was used as political cover to ram through a measure that is ill-considered and detrimental to public safety."

Indeed, lawmakers have proposed legislation that would repeal individual parts of the law, such as one that shifted responsibility for certain felons sentenced to three years or longer from state prisons to county jails and another that allows certain parole violators who are sex offenders to serve time in county jails. But the efforts have so far failed to win support from lawmakers.

Some county officials have also complained about realignment. Riverside County Sheriff Stan Sniff said last week, "One of the first things that happened is the jail system here in Riverside County burst at the seams," according to local news reports. Sniff claimed that 7,000 inmates were released early last year because of overcrowding in the jail.

If passed by voters, Maldonado's plan - which offered no specific proposals regarding what would replace realignment - could put the state in hot water with federal courts, which have already said realignment failed to achieve court-mandated reductions in the prison population.

Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, who chairs the Assembly Public Safety Committee, said concerns about the prison population should be taken seriously.

"Abel Maldonado, from what I've heard, admits he has no money to promote the repeal initiative and no plans of his own to solve the prisons problem," Ammiano said via email. "As Chair of Public Safety, I'm committed to making sure that we address prison overcrowding, instead of making it worse."

The Correction Department's Callison said if voters were to in fact repeal realignment, a spike in prisoners is exactly what would occur.

"If it were to do so, it is reasonable to assume that the state prison population would rise by 25,000" inmates, Callison said. "I really can't imagine any scenario under which that would be acceptable to the federal courts."

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