The Public Safety Realignment Act that restructured California's prison system was a product of necessity, not inspiration.

Two straws stirred the drink: (1) The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that more than 30,000 inmates had to be released from the state's overcrowded cells within two years, and (2) common sense said spending nearly $11 billion a year on prisons didn't make much sense.

So it was that many of the state's correctional problems were dumped into county laps. Offenders convicted of nonviolent, nonserious, non-sex felonies now are sent to jails instead of prison. Similar offenders who complete prison sentences are assigned to county probation instead of state parole officers.

That's Jerry Brown in the background washing his hands of this mess.

"It's the most drastic change to the criminal justice system in the last 30 years," Contra Costa County District Attorney Mark Peterson said.

He said "drastic," not awful. Assessments of the new system after the first 10 months have not evoked as many complaints as one might imagine.

"We didn't ask for this," said Phil Kader, Contra Costa County's chief probation officer, "but some good things have happened."

Foremost is an improved relationship between released convicts and their supervisory officers. Kader said under the old prison system about 15 percent of released convicts failed to report to parole officers. With them now assigned to probation, that number has dropped to 7 percent statewide and 3.7 percent in Contra Costa.


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He conceded it is early to draw conclusions and the sample size is small, but he is guardedly optimistic. Another hopeful sign is an indication of reduced recidivism.

"We've been tracking our warrants and people who reoffended," he said. "We're at about 20 percent. The prison system numbers were somewhere around 72 or 74 percent."

Kader wants to knock wood every time he mentions a hopeful result. Good things haven't happened to the corrections system for a long time. His reason for encouragement is probation officers have had success in engaging their "clients," as they call released prisoners.

"We're working hard to build trust, to do effective programming," he said, explaining efforts made to help secure housing, healthcare, educational opportunities and jobs. "We want to manage their cases, not simply be compliance officers."

These case managers are also key in so-called "split sentences," a reduced sentencing procedure in which a convict serves part of his time in jail and the remainder on probation under mandatory supervision. An effective probation officer can ease re-entry into society.

From Peterson's perspective as prosecutor, it's too early to say if realignment deserves a passing grade. "I guess my glass is half-empty and half-full," he said. "The jury is still out."

One of his concerns, he said, is that reduced sentencing and shorter probation could lead to increased crime, because "the consequence for many felonies is less that it has been. Whether that ends up being good or bad is an unknown. There's not enough data to know at this time."

One positive, he said, is that the county has received adequate state funds for realignment -- $19 million this year. His worry is that money is not guaranteed beyond two years. A new governor or a change in the Legislature's disposition could pull the rug from under the program.

The DA concedes this much: "We know that what we were doing before wasn't working, so the fact that a financial crisis forced us to do something we never would have done is probably good.

"We tried the harsh sentences for long periods of time. Now we're going to find out if the softer approach works."

Necessity sometimes forces change that inspiration never thought of.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at twitter.com/tombarnidge.