The state of California and its 58 counties have a mounting crisis on their hands and the blame game is in full swing.
In 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown was handed a federal mandate to reduce the prison population because of overcrowding, which was ruled to be cruel and unusual punishment and the primary cause of unconstitutionally poor inmate medical and mental health care. Brown appealed but the mandate was upheld. Should Brown have chosen to ignore the mandate, then he would be held in contempt. And so began the great shift from prison to county jails, known as realignment. This, however, did not mean that current inmates would move from prisons to jails, but that newly convicted nonviolent, nonsexual and nonserious offenders would serve their time in jail, not prison. And the plan worked, in part, to reduce overcrowding. But not enough. And not without perceived repercussions at the local levels.
The first problem at hand is that, though Brown has been able to reduce the prison population by tens of thousands of inmates, he still has approximately 6,000 more to go. (Various news sources have estimates of up to 12,000 inmates.) Brown’s original plan was to relocate them to prisons out of state by Dec. 31, the deadline of the mandate, costing state taxpayers upward of $700 million over the next two years, which is only a short-term fix. But Democratic state legislators compromised with Brown and came to an agreement on Monday, that rather than the costly capacity-only relocation proposal, Brown would instead ask a panel of federal judges to modify the Dec. 31 deadline so as to reduce the population to 137.5 percent of capacity; the facilities had been operating at times at 200 percent capacity over the span of a decade. Should the judges approve a deadline extension and/or raise the maximum operating capacity, Brown will implement a cheaper, rehabilitation-focused program intended to reduce recidivism rates. There is no deadline for the judges to make their final decision on the request, but prison officials say they need to start making plans this week if the judges do not go along with the compromise. If all else fails, however, certain inmates will be released by deadline on early parole.
The second problem is, really, conflicting data over how realignment has affected local communities with regard to public safety. FBI crime statistics revealed that for the first six months of 2012, property and violent crimes increased in 40 of 69 cities, with the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation citing realignment as the cause. On the other hand, violent crime dropped in five counties that received the majority of the lower-level prisoners that would have gone to state prisons, which means that the counties can handle the increase of inmates without crime increasing, according to San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.
While law enforcement and other related officials crunch numbers of data, the fact of the matter is that there are no concrete details that indicate realignment has anything to do with any negative effects on the community. While there have been egregious crimes committed by these “post-release offenders,” aka low-level offenders served the same amount of time in jail as they would in prison; and they are in similar, if not the same, comprehensive programs of supervision when released on probation as they would be if released on parole. Dually noted, probation agencies are handling a higher-risk, more sophisticated, violent clientele, but those same people on probation locally would be the same people on parole locally. It’s not as if people on parole never went back to their home towns. At this time, there is actually no data readily available that directly links realignment to increased crime. Period.
As legislators and law enforcement officials argue back and forth about increased crime or decreased crime or the problems with realignment or the successes of realignment, undoubtedly what that continues to be glossed over is 1. keeping people out of jail in the first place, and 2. reducing the recidivism rate. But for now, we will focus on the recidivism rate.
According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, based on pre-realignment and post-realignment dates and data in a one-year study beginning Oct. 1, 2011, the rate of post-realignment nonviolent, nonserious and nonsexual offenders convicted of new crimes is nearly the same as the rate of pre-realignment offenders convicted of new crimes (21.3 percent pre-realignment and 22.5 percent post realignment). Arrest rates dipped slightly from 62.0 percent to 58.7 percent for the same time period — the arrest rate remaining pitifully high. (The three-year recidivism rates on average for all felons returning to prison has remained steady around 61 percent of the last decade with the exception offenders that fall within realignment standards.)
So if realignment hasn’t substantially changed the recidivism rate, then why do we continue to focus on realignment as causing an increase in crime? The data thus far does not indicate that to be true. What is at the nucleus of this whole argument is that instead of focusing on more law enforcement and more prison cells, we, as a society, must home in on better rehabilitation programs while inmates are serving their time. It is the department of rehabilitation and corrections, not just corrections. When, exactly, did we stop rehabilitating inmates and only seek to punish them? If we want to see less crime and less money going to prisons, jails and law enforcement, then we have to change the status quo.