prison.jpgAn American Civil Liberties Union report claims the current funding for the state’s criminal justice realignment program penalizes counties that developed alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenders.

Bay Area counties in that category that received relatively smaller funding grants in the current fiscal year include Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco, according to the report released by the ACLU of California on Wednesday.

Conversely, counties such as Kings and San Bernardino that relied most heavily on imprisoning people convicted of minor nonviolent crimes were financially rewarded, the report claims.

“The higher the past incarceration rate, the higher that county’s piece of the funding pie,” the report said.

The realignment program was enacted by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last April and went into effect on Oct. 1.

It transfers responsibility for custody and supervision of people convicted of low-level, nonviolent and nonsexual crimes from the state prison and parole system to county jail and probation authorities.

One purpose of the measure was to comply with a May 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring California to reduce the population of its severely overcrowded prisons.

A second purpose was to seek to reduce the state’s 67 percent rate of recidivism, or return to prison, described by Brown last year as a “revolving door” system, by giving counties more authority over custody and rehabilitation of offenders.

The state’s initial funding for the program was an allocation of $354 million to counties for the incremental cost of carrying out realignment during the nine months from Oct. 1 to the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

The grants ranged from $77,000 to Alpine and Sierra counties to $113 million to Los Angeles County, and counties could apportion the funding as they wished among jail expansion, probation departments, sheriffs’ departments and health and treatment services.

Under a formula agreed to by the California State Association of Counties, the most important factor in determining each county’s share was its average daily number of state prison inmates serving terms for low-level nonviolent crimes.

That factor was given a weight of 60 percent, while the county’s population counted for 30 percent and its success in reducing recidivism for 10 percent.

That formula, the ACLU report contends, resulted in disparities for counties such as Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco that made greater use of custody alternatives such as work-release programs, home detention, and drug and mental health treatment.

For example, the report notes, Alameda County, with a population of 1.6 million and a crime rate of 2.8 percent of the population, received realignment funding of $9.2 million.

By contrast, San Bernardino County, with a population of 2 million and a 2.2 percent crime rate, was awarded $25.8 million, or more than twice that amount. The crime rate used in the ALCU analysis included violent offenses and property crimes.

In another comparison, San Francisco, with 805,000 residents and a 2 percent crime rate, received $5 million, while Tulare County, with about half the population – 442,000 – and a 2.5 percent crime rate, was given $5.7 million.

Contra Costa County, with 1 million residents and a 2.3 percent crime rate, was given $4.6 million, while Fresno County, with a population of 950,000 and a 2.6 percent crime rate, was granted $8.8 million, the report noted.

On the other side of the equation, however, Santa Clara County fared better among the larger Bay Area counties. With a population of 1.8 million and a 1.5 percent crime rate, it received $12.6 million.

The ACLU advocates revising the formula in the future to take account of populations and violent crime rates, but at the same time give counties greater incentives to reduce recidivism and increase the use of alternatives to incarceration when appropriate.

“Simply building new jails or re-opening unused jail space treats the symptom but not the underlying disease,” said ACLU attorney Allen Hopper, a co-author of the report.

“It’s time to confront the fact that in California, over-incarceration is itself a disease, and the way to end it is to expand the use of mental health services, drug treatment and job training, and to reserve prison and jail for responding to serious crimes,” Hopper maintained.

State Finance Department spokesman H.D. Palmer said the current formula was intended for use only in the first year while the realignment program was starting up and will be revised in the 2012-13 fiscal year.

“That funding formula is going to change as we work with counties and the Legislature over allocating the money for the next year, and that’s by design,” Palmer said.

“We knew we’d be having to make adjustments,” he said.

Elizabeth Espinosa, a senior legislative representative with the California State Association of Counties, said an association committee is currently developing the formula for next year and will complete the process sometime this spring.

Espinosa said the formula “will be adjusted in some manner,” but said she could not specify what changes will be made.

“There is a divergence of opinion depending where you are,” Espinosa said.

“Counties that have invested in alternatives to incarceration will argue that it is unfair” to be penalized, she said.

But on the other side of the spectrum, counties with historically higher numbers of prison inmates need financial support for handling offenders who will now be placed in county jails or programs instead of state prisons, Espinosa said.

“They need time and resources to develop the infrastructure and programs for alternatives to incarceration,” she said.

The allocation formula is developed in an open process by an association committee of the chief administrative officers of three urban, three suburban and three rural counties, she said.

“The committee is looking at it and trying to find the right way to balance the factors,” Espinosa said.

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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