The Crisis of Realignment
California’s prisons are overcrowded. So overcrowded that in 2011, the US Supreme Court ordered the state of California to reduce its prison population by 10,000 inmates. Instead of simply releasing them, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has tried to keep as many people behind bars as possible by moving them to county jails and private prisons. This shuffling about of prisoners has been termed “Public Safety Realignment”, or just “Realignment” for short.
As a result of the influx of state prisoners through Realignment, county jails are also growing increasingly overcrowded. To reduce the pressure on overcrowded jails, the state has set aside $500 million for jail expansion projects. This money will be divided up between different counties to pay for construction costs. Once built, the new or expanded jails will be operated by their home counties, with some financial help from the state. If all this comes to pass, county jails will function as an extension to the state prison system, while the root causes of overcrowding go unaddressed. We will be left with a bigger, more expensive prison and jail system, and less money for programs that would keep people out of jail in the first place: education, housing, mental health services, addiction counseling, job training, and community centers.
At the same time that legislators and law enforcement leaders are trying to build more cages, a coalition of grassroots organizations around the state is working to stop them. Individual groups are advocating for alternatives to incarceration in their host counties, and are coordinating with folks in other regions to mobilize for strategic statewide actions. It’s too soon to tell how this movement will unfold, but the demands are clear: build strong communities, not jails.