Parole and Realignment in California

Want to know about parole in California?

Well, it’s complicated because the law changes all the time in all kinds of ways, and it recently changed in a big way on October 1, 2011 when the Criminal Justice Realignment Act went into effect. Actually, the new law kind of changed everything. The purpose was to reduce the state’s prison and parolee populations and to shift some of the burden of housing and supervising them to the counties. The law responded to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in 2011 that California’s prisons were so overcrowded—at nearly 200% of their capacity—that they violated the Eighth Amendment. The Court ordered the state to reduce its prison population to 137.5% of capacity, and the Realignment Act followed.

Parole, as you may know, is not quite the same as probation. Since the late 1970s, parole in California was a form of supervision that followed the end of your felony prison sentence. It was administered by parole agents or officers who were employed by and reported to the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Probation, on the other hand, was (and still is) a form of supervision that’s a part of your sentence, whether on a felony or misdemeanor. Probation reduces or replaces the amount of time that you may otherwise have to spend in custody, and it’s administered by the court or its probation department.

Since realignment, however, these two concepts have sort of converged because, for some felonies, you now serve your sentence in the county jail rather than state prison, and depending on where you go, you can now be paroled to the state or the county or not at all.

Here’s how it works. If you’re convicted of a non-violent, non-sexual, and non-serious felony then you generally will serve your time in the county jail, not the state prison, and if you’re sentenced to serve out your full term, then you’re released afterward without parole. Or, in such “non-non-non” cases, the court may split your sentence so that you serve part of it in the county jail and the rest on a form of parole that’s now called “mandatory supervision,” where you’re supervised by the county probation department, not the state department of corrections. On the other hand, if you’re convicted of a violent or serious felony or have such priors on your record, or if you’re deemed a high-risk sex offender or mentally-disordered offender, then you will still serve your time in state prison and be supervised afterward by the state’s parole authorities. And if you end up in state prison but don’t have such problems, then you will serve out your time and be released to the supervision of the county in what’s now called “post-release community supervision,” unless you’re already on parole from before October 1, 2011, in which case you remain under the supervision of the state.

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