Opinion

Dan Walters: Realignment has reduced California prison population, but what about other effects?

dwalters@sacbee.comDecember 11, 2013 

Two years ago, under intense pressure from federal judges to reduce overcrowding in state prisons, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature enacted “realignment,” diverting low-level felons into local jails, supervision and, it was hoped, rehabilitation.

From the politicians’ standpoint, it has been a big success, reducing the prison population by about 30,000 inmates, to within striking distance of the judges’ magic number.

However, local officials have described a very difficult adjustment, even with billions of dollars in implementation money from Sacramento. They say the diversions have packed their jails with felons, forced them to release local miscreants and, some complain, raised crime levels.

Those complaints found their way into an interim report on realignment by a Stanford University team last month. And this week, the Public Policy Institute of California, in another report, attributed an uptick in property crime, particularly car thefts, to criminals who otherwise would have been behind bars.

California has also seen an increase in violent crime after decades of decline, but PPIC concluded, it was not out of line with what had happened in other states.

“We find no convincing evidence of an effect of realignment on violent crime, with the possible exception of an increase in robberies,” PPIC said.

The PPIC report is fine as far as it goes, but it simply does not go far enough, because it’s based on statistics and not actual tracking of what’s happened to tens of thousands of “realigned felons.”

How many have committed new crimes? How many have been folded into rehabilitation programs to reduce recidivism? Has rehabilitation, where used, actually had a positive effect?

This is California’s largest criminal justice change in living memory and the enabling legislation should have included provisions for detailed tracking of such outcomes, but didn’t.

In its absence, we are left with statistics to be interpreted, like the PPIC report, and the anecdotal cases being compiled by such anti-realignment groups as the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation of serious crimes by felons being put back on the street by diversions and early releases.

The foundation cites such instances as the recently released inmate who, while allegedly drunk, caused a crash in Lodi that took the lives of five people, or the woman on probation under the new law who allegedly murdered a man and his wife in Sacramento.

“It’s starting to mount up,” says the foundation’s director, Michael Rushford.

Supporters and critics of realignment alike – as well as the media – are waiting to see whether someone who otherwise would have been behind bars commits some sensationally heinous crime that would create a political backlash.

And, it could be assumed, Brown worries a bit that it might occur just as he is seeking re-election next year.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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