The County Voice

AB 109 Rhetoric — More Heat Than Light

Our adversarial election process is one of the hallmarks of American democracy, and it is generally a good thing. However, election-driven rhetoric isn’t always the best way to transmit factual information about complex issues. For example, the next gubernatorial election in California is 19 months away and already the friction around public safety realignment is producing more heat than light. I’d like to help people have a solid understanding about realignment before the election cycle kicks into overdrive.

I have heard the anecdotes about new crimes committed by “realigned” offenders. Any crime, especially if it involves violence, is a tragedy, but let’s be clear about something. Before realignment was even considered, almost 70 percent of the people who finished their terms in state prison committed new crimes or violated parole and ended up back behind bars. It was clear to everyone involved that the old system was broken and was not very effective in reducing crime or victimization.

Since the inception of realignment, the supervision and rehabilitation programs in some counties have already lowered recidivism rates to less than 40 percent. While we need more programmatic experience to draw conclusions about overall performance, these early signs are quite promising. So when I hear the anecdotes about realignment and new crime, some of which have been proven to be unrelated, I know we need to look deeper to determine if it’s good public policy or not.

What led to the policy changes that constitute public safety realignment? In spring 2011 when realignment was enacted, California‘s prisons were terribly overcrowded, housing inmates at a level that was approximately 180 percent of the prisons’ design capacity. A federal court had ordered California to reduce the population to elevate the standard of health and mental health care delivery systems.  California was faced with a choice: open up the prison gates and release approximately 35,000 inmates with little or no supervision—or, identify the least-risky offender populations and shift responsibility for their treatment, supervision and custody to California’s counties.

I think the choice there is pretty clear, and AB 109 emerged as the mechanism to transfer funding and responsibility for lower-level offenders to counties.  AB 109 does not call for early release from state prison. Let me reiterate that no one has been released early from state prison under AB 109.

Moreover, while jail crowding has become a serious issue in some counties, realignment allows counties to innovate locally and deploy AB 109 funding flexibly to meet the needs of their local situation. Some counties have hired more probation officers or are expanding jail facilities.  Many counties are using risk assessment tools and innovative evidence-based programs to provide comprehensive supervision and treatment programs to reduce recidivism.

The assessment tools identify the risk factors that make an individual offender more likely to re-offend. And innovative county programs help the offender with drug or alcohol treatment, housing, food stamps and other basic needs and eventually, job skills and placement. The goal is to help an offender become a productive member of society, and many offenders are truly turning their lives around. I would urge you to take a look at the “Smart Justice” videos CSAC has produced about four counties where this approach is helping reduce recidivism.

AB 109 is not perfect. Many counties are still adjusting to the burden of new responsibilities. Programs are being tested and results monitored. But all counties are working toward a goal of improving offender outcomes based on data-driven decisions. And it clearly is better than the alternative California faced in 2011.

So when people say that realignment is causing more crime, I want to ask them two questions: 1) How many crimes do you think would have been committed had we chosen wholesale early release instead?  And, 2) how many crimes do you think realignment has prevented through rehabilitation programs?  And when people suggest we merely repeal AB 109, I want to ask “What would you do with all those people instead?” I am convinced that simply warehousing offenders for longer terms and settling for a 70 percent recidivism rate are not viable solutions. The costs – financial and societal – are just too high.

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