Because high-speed rail, water diversion and education funding have stolen the spotlight, it's been easy to overlook the 20-month-old work-in-progress that is California's prison realignment program.

Disinterest is not for lack of fiscal impact. The state's correctional expenses run more than $10 billion a year. Nor is it for lack of urgency. The U.S. Supreme Court ordered the state to reduce the inmate population in overcrowded prisons to 110,000 by the end of the year.

Inasmuch as that population, once more than 160,000, now is about 120,000, the redirection of low-level offenders and parolees to county jurisdictions appears to be a numbers success. Harder to determine is how it has affected public safety and rehabilitation.

"It's certainly added a burden we didn't have before," said Contra Costa County Sheriff David Livingston. "Since this program began, we've had 2,166 parole violators come to us in detention that formerly went to state prison."

Sentences have also been reduced from one year to six months -- with as much as three months off for good behavior -- and whether those shortened terms lead to more repeat offenders is a nagging question. It's too soon to know, Livingston said.

Chief Probation Officer Phil Kader calculates the "failure rate" -- released prisoners for whom a warrant is issued -- at about 23 percent, which is reason for celebration when compared with state prisons' 70 percent recidivism. In addition to providing supervision, Kader's officers help find housing, social services and job training, and they offer guidance in matters such as reinstating driver's licenses.


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But the crux of prison reform, buried beneath inmate numbers, is reintegration: transforming former violators into productive members of society. Vernon Williams, CEO of the Williams Group and a former convict himself, is an authority on the topic. His organization, staffed by seven ex-convicts, provides mentoring and guidance to parolees.

"There's a huge fantasy that the No. 1 priority for formerly incarcerated individuals is employment," Williams said. "We can get them jobs, but if they have no personal development or pro-social networks to combat their anti-social history, if we haven't transformed their thinking from the psychology of a convict, they're not going to hold that job."

Williams, who spent six years in San Quentin State Prison and Folsom State Prison before turning around his life, said the most important aspect of realignment is new attitudes about the correctional system. His group, like similar ones in other counties, participates in the state-funded program as a community-based agency focused on rehabilitation. His most recent success was re-acclimating a parolee who had been imprisoned for 18 years.

"Our role is to create networks that advocate positive social connections," he said. "We mentor by allowing men to tour our lives and provide relevance so they can see it's possible to change. The punitive, incarceration correctional model is exactly why we're having this conversation. Building more jails is not the answer."

He said recidivism's hallmarks are easily identified: anti-social behavior, lack of education, family dysfunction and substance abuse. The key to transition is providing a positive support group.

It's too early to say realignment has worked. But there are promising signs that it could.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.