Last October, California began a massive overhaul of its prison system under Gov. Jerry Brown’s Public Safety Realignment Act. Under pressure from the courts to improve inmate health care and reduce prison overcrowding, the state has transferred responsibility for thousands of non-violent felons to county jails and local law enforcement. The plan aims to reduce overcrowding in state prisons and trim the state budget – but to do that, county jails and local law enforcement must pick up the slack. This report goes to Fresno County and San Francisco to examine what’s going on inside jails and on the streets under this unprecedented overhaul of the criminal justice system.

YouTube video


Reporter Michael Montgomery: Until recently, California prisons were so packed that inmates were living literally on top of each other. Some were even dying from poor medical care. When he announced his sweeping realignment plan last year, Gov. Jerry Brown acknowledged that overcrowding was only part of a broader crisis.

Gov. Jerry Brown: The system of corrections itself is failing.  With a 70 percent recidivism rate and a cost of $50,000 per inmate, this is not a sustainable system.

Reporter: Bunk beds that had filled prison gymnasiums and hallways as overflow housing were cleared away. A few months after Brown’s plan launched, state prisons chief Matthew Cate declared the beginning of a new era.

Matthew Cate: This is a great day for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Reporter: At this lockup in Tracy, almost 700 men were living in the gym.

Cate:You can see on the floor – all of the white-colored spaces were rows and rows of triple-bunked bunk beds.

Reporter (to Cate): So these bunk beds were sort of the defining icons of the prison crisis, weren’t they?

Cate: Well, they were because you’d see inmates sitting on their, on these bunks and living on these bunks, and they’re doing ­­– 75 guys do yoga here now.

Reporter: The state has made progress in reducing its prison population to a level ordered by the courts. Now, counties and local jails must pick up the slack.

The theory behind realignment is that local government can do a better job rehabilitating certain offenders. But in some counties, jails are filling up, and local officials are worried.

Margaret Mims: We have helped solve the state’s overcrowding problem. However, it is not solving our own problems here yet.

Reporter: Margaret Mims is the sheriff of Fresno County.

Mims: Right now, we have a population of realigned offenders in the county jail – almost 650. That’s a huge impact on our jail system.  

Reporter: The population of Fresno’s jail has shot up by 30 percent under realignment, one of the highest increases in the state. And it’s a more dangerous place, says Sgt. Terry Barnes.

Terry Barnes: We’ve had a lot of violence lately. Sometimes, we have some very unpredictable people. They’re trying to adjust to staying in a jail over a prison. They don’t have the same freedoms that they’ve had.

Reporter: The jail’s only outdoor space is a series of large cages built on the roof.  As these inmates exercise in sweltering heat, we ask them whether they are happier serving time in jail, closer to home.

Reporter (to inmates): Some of you guys are here – you would have gone to prison, but you’re in jail instead, right?

Inmate: Yeah.

Reporter (to inmates): And what would you prefer?

Inmate: I would prefer to go to prison. There’s no programs here. There’s no, there’s no schools, there’s no education, there’s no jobs. I mean, we go to the yard. This yard is once a week every Monday for an hour; that’s it.

Reporter (to inmates): What do some of you other guys feel like?

Inmate: I’d rather go to prison myself.

Inmate: Same.

Inmate: Anybody who got some time would rather go to prison, you know.

Reporter (to inmates): All you guys would rather be in prison than jail here?

Inmates: Yeah.

Inmate: They gotta start worrying about, like, the rehabilitation for us. You know what I mean?  Like, what are they gonna do to help us out?  What are you gonna do to help him out with his drug problem? What are they going to do to help out with his anger problems?  

Inmate: I have drug problems.

Inmate: There ain’t no rehabilitation inside here for us, you know?    

Reporter (to inmates): A lot of you guys have drug issues?

Inmate: A lot of us does. Raise your hand, anybody who got drug problems.

Inmate: We’re trying to get a program right now.

Reporter: Many county jails have limited facilities because they were designed for short stays. Fresno’s jail even faces a class-action lawsuit alleging poor medical care.

Still, some lower-level offenders are getting long sentences, only now, they have to serve them at the county jail. This inmate will spend five years locked in the oldest part of Fresno’s jail. Amy Granados has done time before, but in state prisons. She says that was pretty easy.

Amy Granados: It’s better medical, we have more space to, you know, roam around. It’s like you can have a life there that you can’t really have here. But then again, being here is kind of like the worst thing, so it’s almost like a blessing in disguise. I won’t want to come back here, you know?

Reporter (to Granados): You mean, you mean it might deter you?

Granados: Right, to be a repeat offender, you know. That’s not the business here.

Mims: Just within the past couple of weeks, we had one woman sentenced to jail for 18 years. Prior to realignment, the most anybody could do in a local facility was one year. So you can see how great an impact that’s going to have on local jails. We were building our facilities for people to be convicted for a year or less, not 15 and 18 years.

Reporter: With its jails at capacity, Fresno is spending $4 million on additional space. That’s nearly half the realignment money the county received from the state. But until the new beds are ready, the sheriff’s department is releasing some felons back to the streets.

Corrections officer: We’ve got an ad-seg on elevator number 2.

Male voice: He’s clear.

Corrections officer: Ten-four.

Mims: Making a decision on who to keep in jail is an every-day, every-hour decision at the Fresno County Jail. Right now, it is based on what the current charge is and, of course, the most violent don’t get released.  The murderers, the robbers, the carjackers ­– they do not get released.

Officer: This guy, he has six felony warrants that are confirmed.  He’s a suspect in a burglary at Hume Lake.

Reporter: Still, Mims says there has been an uptick in property crime in the last few months, and she’s wondering if it’s due to realignment. On a recent Saturday night, her deputies prepare to make an arrest.

Officer: Give me your hands.

Officer: Primary. Primary contact.

Officer: Hold on. Hold on.  Get on, get on – on your knees, on your knees.

Officer: Is there anyone else in your house?

Suspect: No.

Reporter: The suspect has a long rap sheet, mostly for stealing cars.  But Deputy Chris Curtice worries the man won’t be locked up for long, if at all.

Chris Curtice: It’s considered not a violent crime, so they’re eligible for release if there’s no room at the inn. And a lot of times, there is not. ’Cause if he gets out again on these warrants, good chance he’ll be stealing cars, and we’ll be chasing him more and more, and he’ll be crashing cars to get away from us again, so …

Interviewer: He’ll do it all again next week?

Curtice: Yeah, right.

Reporter: Repeat offenders fueled the state prison crisis. Now, counties are being asked to do what the state couldn’t do – keep felons from committing new crimes and going back to lockup. Some counties, like San Francisco, are testing new approaches.

Sarah Wanser (San Francisco Adult Probation Department): I am headed to San Quentin State Prison. And I am interviewing three different inmates who will be released to see what their risk level is.

Reporter: San Francisco is sending its probation officers into state prisons. They meet with inmates before they’re even released as part of an ambitious re-entry program.

Wanser:Thank you. Mr. Tiger?

Sean Tiger: Yes, ma’am.

Wanser: All right. I’m Sarah Wanser. I’m here from San Francisco Adult Probation …

Reporter: Sean Tiger is finishing up his fourth term for drug charges. In the past, state parole agents monitored Tiger, but under realignment, it’s different. His most recent conviction is considered non-violent, so his fate is now in the hands of local government.

Wanser: How many of your friends or acquaintances are taking illegal drugs regularly? None? Few? Half? Most?

Tiger: Most.

Wanser: OK. What kind of drugs?

Tiger: Marijuana.

Reporter: Officer Wanser is assessing what programs are available to help Sean Tiger stay out of trouble.

Wanser: Do you think your current or past legal problems are because of alcohol or drug use?

Tiger: No, I would say greed.

Wanser: OK, so you were more selling?

Tiger: Yeah.

Wanser: OK.

Reporter: The men coming home to San Francisco under realignment are finishing prison terms for non-violent crimes. But many are career criminals who, in the past, have committed violent crimes. The threat of violence has taken many counties by surprise. San Francisco is hiring 18 new probation officers.

Instructor: All right, here we go! Two rounds! Body. Pick up the speed on those body shots!

Reporter: Prior to realignment, most San Francisco probation officers didn’t carry a gun. But now, they’re getting extra training.

Lt. James Uptegrove (Galt Police Department): We’re starting to see probation departments ramp up. We’re seeing agencies come through that traditionally were not armed in the past. And now, I think more agencies are seeing the need to start arming their officers.

Reporter: The probation officers are also spending a lot more time in the field. They call it intensive supervision, and it’s another way to help people stay out of trouble and out of prison.

James Lomas (parolee): Who is it?

Christy Henzi: Mr. Lomas, it’s Christy.

Reporter: Probation Officer Christy Henzi says a big part of her job is akin to social work.

Henzi: You have anything in here you shouldn’t have, Mr. Lomas?

Lomas: No.

Henzi: Good.

Lomas: Good luck.

Henzi: Yeah, I’m going to take a little bit of a look.

Henzi: We used to be about finding things that people are doing wrong, and now we’re about finding things that people are doing right – and rewarding for that. And certainly, we still have the other side to our job, which is the compliance officer, but primarily it’s about rehabilitation.

Reporter: It’s not always easy. Down the hall, Henzi is checking up on a man who’s done time for manslaughter.

Henzi: So sometimes, we’ll see things in somebody’s room, and instinctively, we think that’s a violation and we need to, you know, haul you off in handcuffs. And the reality is what we need to do is make a referral to a treatment program. So that sometimes is a difficult switch to turn off.

Reporter: We caught up with Sean Tiger on the day of his release from state prison.

Reporter (to Tiger): How’s it feel to be out of San Quentin?

Tiger: Fantastic. It’s beautiful. I’m free. That’s all I ever wanted was to be free.

Reporter: Tiger is here to meet with his probation officer. His top priority now is to get a job.

Wanser: Mr. Tiger? Come on back.

Reporter: San Francisco is investing most of its state realignment money in services like drug treatment, housing, job training and life-skills counseling.

Wanser: And you can just come on in and have a seat right there. Yes.

Reporter: After a half-hour interview, Officer Wanser has lined up a busy schedule for Tiger.

Wanser: OK. So that’s all set up for you. Here is Goodwill.

Reporter: His next step will be meeting with a career counselor.

Tiger: I got it, ready to go.

Wanser: OK, all right, great.

Tiger: OK.

Reporter: The probation department is using realignment money to help fund programs like this one at GoodwIll Industries.

Carolina Flamenco: So right now, I’m gonna help you with the clothing voucher, for the – it’s for the mock interview that goes on within that week. That’s the suit that I’m gonna have you get with these $30.

Tiger: OK.

Flamenco: OK? And then for Sean Tiger. Here’re your tokens.

Reporter: Tiger also gets bus fare to help him get to his classes. As he picks out clothes for potential job interviews, Tiger begins to think that San Francisco’s approach might actually make a difference for him.

Tiger: I was very, very skeptical. It was, you know, I was just, like, “Well, OK.  Let me just sign this and get it over with, then I get out and I’ll be on probation.”  

But once I got out and Ms. Wanser starts sending me to Goodwill and all these programs and all these things I was doing, I was like, “OK, this is definitely better than being on parole.” They are not giving you, you know, no blow-off or nothing like that. They are literally giving you tools to better yourself.

Reporter: San Francisco is betting that its investments in former inmates like Sean Tiger will pay off. Unlike Fresno, San Francisco’s jail population has fallen slightly, says probation chief Wendy Still.

Wendy Still: Our job is about protecting the public. And our strategies are doing that. So we’re proving that we’re not being soft on crime; we’re proving that we’re being smart on crime.

Reporter: It’s too early to know whether San Francisco’s approach will actually reduce recidivism. But if it does, it could save taxpayers a lot of money.

Still: A day on probation supervision, even with the enhanced services that we’re talking about providing, is well under $10, versus a cell in jail or a cell in prison that costs about $130 a day.

Reporter: But there isn’t a single road map for success, leaving difficult choices for local governments.

In Fresno, realignment has sparked an intense debate over limited resources. Should the county invest more in rehabilitation or tougher enforcement? It’s an urgent question as counties around the state take on responsibility for a growing number of felons.

Mims: I’ve been involved in law enforcement for 32 years. We have never had a readjustment or realignment or reorganization, however you want to phrase it, as big as this. This is huge.

It is a – not only a mindset shift, but a criminal justice system shift that everyone is having to adjust to, from our DA, to our probation officers, to our courts, to the police departments, to sheriff’s offices.  It is the biggest thing I have seen in 32 years of law enforcement.


Segment producer/reporter and camera: Monica Lam
Line producer: Robin Epstein
Host: Scott Shafer
Reporter: Michael Montgomery

Center for Investigative Reporting
Editor: David Ritsher
Associate producer: Sharon Pieczenik
Additional camera: Sharon Pieczenik, Derek Lartaud and Zachary Stauffer
Senior producer: Stephen Talbot

Director/editor: Peter Borg
Technical director and camera: Rick Santangelo
Lighting director and camera: Jim McKee
Director of photography and camera: Mike Elwell
Audio: Helen Silvani
Video: Eric Shackelford
Makeup: Kadidja Sallak
Design: Zaldy Serrano and Christina Zee
Communications: Scott Walton and Evren Odcikin
TV operations: Kim McCalla and Simon Hui
Director of television production: Sandra Schonning
Vice president, television: Michael Isip
Executive producers: Joanne Elgart Jennings and Sharon Tiller

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Monica Lam is a documentary film and television producer who has traveled on five continents producing, reporting, and shooting for the NewsHour, Frontline, Frontline/WORLD and other PBS programs as well as Swiss television and MSNBC. She has won an Emmy for her work and was cinematographer of an Oscar-nominated short documentary. Monica has written for the Daily Californian, San Francisco Chronicle, Florida Sun-Sentinel, Hyphen magazine and was the founding editor of Berkeley Patch, a daily hyperlocal news site. She studied urban planning at Stanford University and received her masters in journalism from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

Michael Montgomery

Michael Montgomery is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal. He has led collaborations with the Associated Press, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Frontline, KQED and others.

Previously, Montgomery was a senior reporter at American Public Media, a special correspondent for the BBC and an associate producer with CBS News. He began his career in eastern Europe, covering the fall of communism and wars in former Yugoslavia for the Daily Telegraph and Los Angeles Times. His investigations into human rights abuses in the Balkans led to the arrest and conviction of Serbian and Albanian paramilitaries and creation of a new war crimes court based in The Hague. Montgomery’s honors include Murrow, Peabody, IRE, duPont, Third Coast and Overseas Press Club awards. He is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.