AB 109, or Assembly Bill 109, was passed by voters in California in 2011. It is often referred to simply as “realignment.”
The goal of AB 109 is to divert people who are convicted of felonies that are not defined as serious to local country jails. That reserves more space for those convicted of serious felonies at state prisons, such as sexually-based offenses or violent crimes. The purpose of this realignment was to reduce the issues of overcrowding that were occurring at the state prison level.
The bill took effect on October 1, 2011. Since its initial creation, AB 109 has been altered by AB 116, AB 117, and AB 118.
There have been several pros and cons of AB 109 to evaluate since the realignment process began. Here are some of the lessons which have been learned so far.
List of the Pros of AB 109
1. It created an immediate reduction in overcrowding issues at the state level.
In the first 6 months of the realignment program, California was able to transfer about 13,000 prisoners from state responsibility to local responsibility. That provided immediate relief to the state budget, which was experiencing significant shortfalls in funding. It also reduced the issue of overcrowding, which had been the subject of several federal-level lawsuits.
2. Operational responsibility can still be held by the state.
Although direct supervision of prisoner populations shifted to counties with AB 109, California could still maintain oversight over the prison system as a whole. That meant the best practices developed by correctional officials could be shared with each jurisdiction. With the population movement, it also meant that local best practices could be shared to the state level with greater ease.
3. It helped to create local jobs.
Transferring prisoners to the local level helped to create correctional jobs in many communities. When AB 109 was first signed into law, Californians were still experiencing the fallout effects of the Great Recession. Some communities had few job opportunities available to it.
4. Realignment may not have increased violent crime.
One of the primary controversies of AB 109 is that many communities blame an increase in overall crime, particularly violent crime, on the realignment. Professor Charis Kubrin, Professor of Criminology at UC-Irvine, told The Mercury News in 2017 that AB 109 “had zero impact one way or another on violent crime across the state.” When the crime data from California is compared to all other states in the U.S., the trends are similar to what is being experienced nationwide.
5. It reduced the number of offenders returning to prison for parole violations.
The Public Policy Institute of California studied the effects of violent crime and AB 109 and found similar results to what UC-Irvine discovered in their work. They also found that within the first two years of the implementation of this realignment policy, offenders returning to state prison for parole violations dropped from 55% to 16.5%.
6. AB 109 also reduced the number of days behind bars for parole violations.
The realignment process created a policy called “flash incarceration.” Before AB 109, any parole violation, including non-violent ones, would usually send an offender back to state prison. After AB 109, an immediate sanction of up to 10 days is given to offenders who commit a minor violation.
7. It offers people a chance to truly rehabilitate.
One of the biggest challenges in U.S. society is to rehabilitate individuals who want to re-enter society after making a mistake. A felony conviction makes it difficult to find affordable housing or get a good job. By changing the way certain crimes are classified, especially with supplemental laws like Proposition 47, which reduced certain property and drug charges to misdemeanors, there are more opportunities for people to change the course of their lives if that is what they want to do.
List of the Cons of AB 109
1. It puts prisoner responsibility at the county level instead of the state level.
Many counties were already at a stress point when dealing with prisoner populations. There are simply not enough prisoner beds in California right now. It is the population concern, not the actual crime concern, which caused the California Supreme Court to rule that the state needed to reduce prisoner population levels by 35,000 individuals. By shifting the financial responsibilities to the county level, the state put even more stress on local jurisdictions that were already struggling.
2. It created changes to parole and the post-release system.
AB 109 made changes to how the state parole system worked for felony sentencing. Before the realignment occurred, inmates released from prison would be placed on parole. They would be supervised by a state parole agent. After realignment, country probation agents would supervise parolees for certain realigned crimes instead of state parole agencies.
3. It created specific safety issues for communities.
In 2017, despite having multiple convictions and gang affiliations, Michael C. Mejia was named as the suspect in the fatal shootings of Whittier, CA police officer Keith Boyer and Roy Torres, who was the cousin of the suspect. Many law enforcement agencies in California blame AB 109 for an increase in crime at the local level, which in the case of Mejia, can be violent. Police deaths in Palm Springs and Los Angeles in 2016 also involved recent parolees that resulted in a flash incarceration instead of a return to state prison.
4. No one knows the true impact of AB 109.
AB 109 was signed into law because of the need to address prisoner overpopulation issues. When it was signed, no money was set aside to actually study what the impact of the realignment would be at the local level. That means any statistics which are collected regarding realignment are only available on the local level. If a county doesn’t fund research, then it doesn’t get done.
5. It did contribute to a rise in certain crimes.
Although the work from Professor Kubrin through UC-Irvine showed a lack of impact on violent crime, the studies performed on realignment did show that communities were experiencing an increase in certain crimes. AB 109 was confirmed to have contributed to a rise in property crime, mostly automobile thefts.
6. Realignment did not alter recidivism rates.
There are no published figures about parole violations that occur on the county level. The Public Policy Institute of California did discover that the re-arrest rates and re-convictions rates within the state stayed at roughly the same levels as they were before AB 109 was signed into law.
7. There is no real-time tracking of flash incarceration rates.
When Mejia was accused of crashing a stolen vehicle and opening fire on police officers, he was out on release from a recent flash incarceration. During a review of his arrest logs, Mejia was given 5 flash incarceration sentences within the previous 12 months for violating his community supervision terms. If there was some way to track how many times someone violates their parole terms and return them to jail or prison instead of returning them to parole, many of the controversial issues of AB 109 could potentially be resolved.
8. It reduced money for actual parolee supervision.
Because AB 109 created local Direct Reporting Centers to help manage qualifying offenders under realignment, most of the money reserved for this process was dedicated to the start-up of those facilities. That reduced the amount of money which was available at the local level for actual supervision. The counties which saw the best results come from AB 109 had available monetary resources which they could supply for it. Those without additional resources often found themselves struggling with its implementation.
9. AB 109 rewarded people for doing what they should be doing in the first place.
Rehabilitation is something that most would agree should be encouraged. Bribing people to choose rehabilitation, however, becomes more of a controversial method. There are several fringe benefits associated with AB 109 that are intended to help offenders on local parole stay out of trouble. Issuing gift cards to them for completing the terms of their release was one of those benefits for some counties.
10. It cut in half the amount of time spent in jail for true parole violations.
When AB 109 was passed, it reduced the amount of time offenders spent in jail from 1 year to 6 months for a true parole violation where flash incarceration was disqualified. Parolees were also eligible for release after completing just 50% of their overall sentence.
These AB 109 pros and cons show us that there is potential in the realignment process. It does promote the increase of crime at the local level and may keep some offenders near where they preferred to commit their crimes, creating a negative impact for the community. It also promotes the concept of rehabilitation, even if re-arrest and re-conviction rates have not been altered through realignment.