Viewpoints: Realignment doesn't lead to early release

Special to The BeeOctober 13, 2012 

Is realignment the cause of crime in California?

Now that the county jails and probation departments are responsible for managing some people who previously would have gone to state prison, that's the question being raised again and again. Too many people are quick to say yes, which is unfortunate – and misleading.

In October 2011, public safety "realignment" became law and California shifted responsibility for people convicted of nonviolent, nonserious, nonsexual offenses to counties in order to reduce severe overcrowding in our state prisons. Such a major policy change has created a lot of attention – and misinformation.

The media are allowing critics to mislabel realignment as an "early release" policy that has not provided state funds for counties' new responsibilities.

Some are also trying to link increases in any crime rates anywhere in the state to realignment. Unfortunately, too often the media have failed to question or refute these misleading claims.

Considering the high stakes – for public safety and the use of taxpayer funds – it is critical that facts, not fear, win the day.

Here are the facts:

First, realignment was a policy decision to change where people served their time, either locally or in the state system. Despite mischaracterizations of realignment as "early release," the law and its implementation have not resulted in the early release of a single person from state prison.

For individuals convicted of non-non-nons, county courtrooms devise sentences that typically result in jail time or both jail time and supervised probation. Additionally, some individuals who have completed their state prison sentence are now supervised by local probation instead of state parole.

Second, counties do receive state funds to carry out additional offender management responsibilities under realignment. State leaders provided $850 million to California's 58 counties in 2011 and an additional $1 billion for the 2012-13 fiscal year.

Third, and most importantly, for decades too many people coming out of our state prisons were no better off, and in some cases worse off, than they were when they went in. In fact, an average of two out of three people coming out were re-arrested within a few years. State prisons have not succeeded in reducing repeat offense rates, and this has cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

It used to be that many of us thought that state prisons were the only answer to public safety. Today, emerging science tells us a different story of what can work to protect the public and stop repeated offending. We now know that using data and technology to track crime patterns, combined with risk assessment tools, swift and certain consequences for offenders, and the use of programs proven to reduce recidivism work better than old ways of thinking.

These strategies – called data-driven or evidence-based practices – give law enforcement tools that can more effectively prevent and fight crime, as well as to predict, track and manage offenders to stop repeat cycles of crime and protect victims. They require close attention to research and data, and collaboration across agencies.

Some may not like focusing on science and data. After all, these strategies do not always grab headlines.

But we now know much more about how to fight crime and reduce repeat offenses. The question is: How does that knowledge improve our criminal justice practices? Given that we still have a long way to go to integrate evidence-based practices throughout the justice system, this should be the focus of time and attention.

Knee-jerk reactions to crime incidents and hyperbole about realignment are a disservice to victims of crime, to law enforcement and to the public. It only distracts us from the need to focus on implementing more effective crime-fighting strategies and preventing future crimes.

After decades of failed approaches that depleted our state resources and kept prison doors revolving, realignment is here. Now we have an opportunity to do things differently. We must keep an open mind about what approaches can help keep us safe, and we have to honor the facts.

Blaming realignment for crime is the wrong answer to the wrong question when it comes to long-standing problems in the criminal justice system.

We should instead be asking: In this new landscape, how can we now adopt evidence-based practices throughout the justice system to improve public safety and reduce taxpayer expense?

We look forward to hearing those answers.

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