Revolving Doors or Rehabilitation? Evaluating the Implementation of California Public Safety Realignment
States across the country are struggling to bear the fiscal and social burdens of mass incarceration. Meanwhile, public awareness has increased regarding the failure of carceral institutions to provide adequate health, mental health, and rehabilitative services (Simon, 2013). The problem of mass incarceration is perhaps most evident in California, which was found in violation of the 8th Amendment, protection from cruel and unusual punishment. Under Supreme Court mandate, the release of 37,000 California prisoners is being enacted through the 2011 Public Safety and Realignment Act (AB 109). AB 109 devolves state criminal justice responsibilities to counties and includes significant changes purported to decrease overcrowding and promote community reentry. Part of a larger study examining the impact of AB 109 policy on individuals with mental illness in San Francisco, this sub-study examines the implementation of AB 109 and the factors shaping implementation from a social welfare perspective. An example of one state’s effort to facilitate decarceration, the policy has significant application to criminal justice and social welfare systems across the nation.
The study utilizes critical ethnographic policy analysis (CEPA) (Dubois, 2009). Theoretically, CEPA operates under two premises- (1) mid- and lower-level bureaucrats shape policy implementation and accordingly policy outcomes, and (2) policies are essentially the sum of the experience of stakeholders. Traditional ethnographic data collection methods were used (i.e. participant observation of public meetings and regional conferences, document reviews of agency policies and media accounts, and stakeholder interviews with service providers and forensically-involved individuals). Data analysis was conducted using Dedoose, and varied by included both thematic and constructivist grounded theory methods dependent on data source.
Overarching results include the following: (1) AB 109 has led to significant structural, rhetorical, and service changes in county correctional and social welfare systems, including increased funding for post- release community-based services and emphasis on “best practice rehabilitative programming.” (2) The practice and identity of social work has commonly been invoked by the correctional system in these system changes, hearkening to earlier periods in correctional history during which social workers played a more active role. (3) Different constituencies have dramatically different perspectives on the goals and impact of AB 109, with State bureaucrats seeing a successful devolution indicated by falling prison roles, county bureaucrats touting significant changes to jail and probation infrastructures and services, and forensically-involved stakeholders and advocates seeing the policy as a “grenade toss” from the state to the county with little actual progress toward decarceration.
Results support contemporary arguments suggesting a neo-liberal trend toward penal welfarism. The adoption of social welfare strategies by the criminal justice system is an aspect of this trend. Furthermore, as states adopt their own decarceration strategies and are forced to allocate funding to support community reentry, it is likely that social work practice will increasingly take place under the umbrella of the correctional system.