The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
January 18, 2013

California's Public Safety Realignment Raises the Stakes of Jail Reentry

January 18, 2013

The last post in a MetroTrends series about California's incarcerated population. Read the first, second and third posts.

In a series of posts, I’ve been discussing the impact that California’s Public Safety Realignment plan has had on its prison and jail populations. Under realignment, responsibility for certain types of inmates shifted from prisons to local jails, raising the jail population. What these changes will mean for public safety in California is uncertain (and it bears mentioning that crime in California has declined to the lowest levels in decades), but by housing many felons serving sentences longer than a year in county jails instead of in prisons, realignment greatly raises the stakes for preparing jail inmates for their return home.

As with prisoner reentry, jail reentry is concerned with preparing inmates to transition from jail to the community. Prisoners and jail inmates have high levels of mental illness, addiction, and homelessness, and low levels of educational attainment—all of which affects their ability to transition back to their communities. They also face difficulties managing the stigma of being in the criminal justice system. Unlike with prisons, though, jail populations turn over very quickly; only 20 percent of jail inmates nationally are in custody for a month or more. This means that jails have a small window of time in which to determine who should receive program and case planning interventions and to actually deliver these services. And jail-based service capacity is limited in many jurisdictions. Short jail stays and limited jail programming resources make engagement with post-release service providers and other community resources vitally important.

Realignment alters these dynamics, in some ways that mitigate and in some ways that exacerbate the difficulty of jail reentry. Inmates sentenced to jail under California’s realignment plan are there much longer than the average jail inmate, extending the window for in-jail interventions. Compared with prisoners, people incarcerated in jails are generally much closer to their families and to the social service organizations based in their communities. Shifting incarceration from prisons to jails therefore has the potential to enhance family reunification and engagement in community-based services. Staff from community agencies can more easily access inmates in local jails, building relationships and encouraging inmates to access their services after release. Funds have been transferred from the state to the counties to help implement realignment, and some jurisdictions have used this money to enhance jail programming. Realignment has also enhanced cross-agency collaboration in many California counties, and such collaboration is essential to effective jail reentry. At the same time, the impact of adding the realignment population to California jails and county probation caseloads has strained already overextended program and service resources.

Reentry from local jails has gotten less research and policy attention than reentry from state and federal prisons. Fortunately, for jurisdictions wanting to improve jail reentry efforts, the National Institute of Corrections invested in creating a knowledge base specific to effective jail reentry practice, teaming with the Urban Institute to create the Transition from Jail to Community (TJC) Initiative. The TJC Initiative developed a model based on evidence-based corrections research to take a comprehensive approach to facilitating the reentry of jail populations. The approach was implemented in six learning sites from 2008 to 2012 to assess its viability and determine how it could be applied in different contexts. Fresno, San Diego, and Santa Barbara counties are currently participating as TJC initiative sites. They sought out TJC participation to improve their jail reentry efforts to meet the public safety challenge of realignment. With the increasing number of people entering and leaving California jails, effective reentry services are crucial to help inmates make the transition back to their communities.

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