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California’s "Realignment": Understanding Local Legal Compliance in A Potential Era of Prison Downsizing

Award Information

Award #
Funding Category
Congressional District
Funding First Awarded
Total funding (to date)

Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2015, $32,000)

State-level legal innovations are largely responsible for the recent stabilization of the U.S. prison population, yet little is known about their diffusion and implementation among local criminal justice actors and effects on county-level practice. A particular innovation type—localization—shows promise based on initial success in rapidly reducing one of the world’s largest state prison populations: California’s. Localization devolves offender supervision to lower governmental levels based on the rationale that offenders’ local jurisdictions can achieve superior outcomes to state systems. The viability and effects of localization have not yet been scientifically analyzed.

This study analyzes California’s “realignment” law (AB 109, 2011) as a case of localization to determine whether it succeeds as a decarceration strategy. The purpose is to develop a better understanding of local legal compliance with prison downsizing laws and to identify how county practitioners (“workgroups”) comply with, resist or reshape these laws’ meanings. This knowledge will enhance states’ heretofore largely frustrated attempts to systemically address overincarceration through legal reform.

This project establishes a new theoretical framework for understanding the historical conditions—or, the “law-before”—that shape practitioners’ legal compliance strategies. The relatively taken-for-granted practices that local workgroups have developed over time play a pivotal role in the law-before stage, because they shape how new laws are translated into action.

Hypotheses are tested in two stages using multiple methods. In Stage 1, the application of latent class trajectory modeling (LCTM) to questions of legal compliance in the justice system offers a methodological contribution. LCTM will quantitatively depict counties’ distinct organizational legacies of past practice with respect to state prison use and reveal multiple developmental pathways in local practice where analysts have largely conceived only of one. Multinomial logistic regression will estimate the effects of county socio-demographic characteristics in explaining these historical trajectories. Bivariate and multivariate regression will then assess the relationship between county trajectories and decarceration under AB 109, leading to a typology of local receptivity to decarceration. In Stage 2, institutional ethnographic case studies of workgroups will take place within one county classified in each type. County case studies will identify the on-the-ground compliance processes among workgroups. Stratified sampling of counties from the LCTM-derived typology allows for generalization of compliance processes beyond single cases.

This project contains a research and/or development component, as defined in applicable law.


Date Created: September 13, 2015