Report 2015-609/2015-610 Summary - April 2015

High Risk Update—Public Safety Realignment and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation: The State Has Reduced Overcrowding in Its Prisons, but Its Inmate Health Care Is Still Under Federal Receivership


In 2007 we designated the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (Corrections) as a high-risk state agency because of overcrowding in the state prisons, the state of the prison health care system, and Corrections' lack of consistent leadership. Our current review finds that Corrections has reported significant reductions to the state prison population; however, Corrections continues to warrant its designation as a high-risk state agency because of our concerns about the remaining two areas. In contrast, we believe that the 2011 transfer of responsibility for certain nonserious, nonviolent offenders from the State to the counties—a transition known as realignment—is no longer a high-risk issue under our state high-risk program.

Since our high risk update report in 2013, Corrections has continued to reduce the state prison population. In fact, it reported to the Federal Court that it achieved the final inmate population target of 137.5 percent of the prisons' design capacity for the first time in February 2015.1 Although not enough time has passed for Corrections to demonstrate that it can maintain inmate population levels at the Federal Court's target, a number of factors cause us to conclude that state prison overcrowding is no longer a factor contributing to Corrections' designation as a high-risk agency. Specifically, the State's 2011 public safety realignment significantly reduced the number of inmates housed in the state prisons. Further, the passage of Proposition 47 in November 2014 reduced penalties for certain offenders, making some offenders ineligible for state prison and potentially shortening the sentences of others. By February 2015, Corrections had increased the number of inmates it houses in contract beds outside of state prison facilities to roughly 14,700 individuals; these inmates do not count against the prison population cap. We will consider reexamining the State's prison population in future high risk reports if it begins to show signs of exceeding the Federal Court's inmate population target.

In February 2006 the State's inability to provide adequate prison health care caused the Federal Court to place its prison health care system under a court-appointed federal receiver. California Correctional Health Care Services, under the direction of the federal court-appointed receiver—which we will collectively refer to as the Receiver's Office—will remain in place until the Federal Court is satisfied that the State has the will, capacity, and leadership to maintain a system of providing constitutionally adequate medical health care services to inmates. In our 2013 report, we concluded that until control of the prison health care system reverts back to Corrections, Corrections will remain a high-risk agency. Because the Receiver's Office has reported significant improvement in the inmate health care system, the Federal Court has now clarified a process for the gradual transition of inmate health care back to Corrections. However, the timing of this transfer is left to the discretion of the Receiver's Office. Until the Receiver's Office delegates increased authority to Corrections, and until Corrections demonstrates that it can adequately manage inmate medical care, we will continue to consider the prison health care system a factor contributing to Corrections' designation as a high-risk agency.

Further, we believe that Corrections' lack of a succession plan for its leadership remains another factor that makes Corrections a high-risk agency. We previously considered Corrections' challenges with maintaining consistent leadership to be high risk because many executive- and warden-level positions were vacant or held by individuals in an acting capacity. However, Corrections has recently shown significant improvement in filling the vacant positions within its leadership at its headquarters: Its March 2015 organizational chart showed no vacancies and only three employees serving as acting directors. Nonetheless, after eliminating its succession planning and training units in 2011, Corrections has yet to establish an adequate alternative to meet this need. Without such a plan or an adequate alternative, Corrections cannot ensure the availability and quality of its future leaders; thus, its ability to maintain consistent leadership remains a factor contributing to Corrections' designation as a high-risk agency.

Finally, in 2013 we designated the State's 2011 public safety realignment of its criminal justice programs to be a high-risk issue because the State lacked reliable and accessible data on the legislation's effects. However, since our previous report, the Board of State and Community Corrections has taken significant steps to collect information on realignment programs and practices for counties to use when making decisions related to criminal justice. For example, it has published a definition of recidivism, identified and made available criminal justice performance metrics, and gathered data from counties regarding their plans for implementing realignment. Further, although many counties continue to face challenges related to overcrowded jails because of realignment, these challenges are local responsibilities rather than statewide issues that can be addressed by any particular state agency. For these reasons, we do not believe realignment should continue to be designated an area of high risk, under our state level high-risk program.

1 We use one term—Federal Court—throughout our report for simplicity, rather than referring to the United States District Courts for the Eastern and Northern Districts of California as separate courts.