California Prison Realignment: The Jury is Still Out


Over the last 30 years, California has created an oversized, overcrowded prison system entailing billions of dollars in taxpayer expense, endless safety and health crises, a dismal record of rehabilitation, and increasingly proscriptive court orders to regulate almost all aspects of prison operations.

One major reason for this crisis is that a number of counties were over-relying on the state system by sending thousands of lower-level property and drug offenders to prison.

California’s legislature and governor had no choice but to cut prisoner numbers. They mandated that counties, as of October 1, 2011, could no longer send offenders to state prison unless they were convicted of serious, violent, or sex crimes.

Called “realignment,” the state plan aimed to reduce prison populations by 40,000 over the next five years, saving taxpayers around $2 billion annually and recognizing that unnecessary incarceration does not achieve public safety goals.

Realignment is the first step in making local jurisdictions more self-reliant—with the added hope that the counties will design better strategies to prevent reoffending than prisons have.

So far, realignment has been meeting its stated goals.

In its first year, prison numbers fell by 27,000. While the numbers of violent, serious, and sex offenders committed to state prison remain the same, counties are assuming responsibility for their drug possession, petty theft, car boosting, and other low-level offenders who are best managed locally.

It is too early to assess the effects of realignment, if any, on crime rates. These data won’t be available for several months.

Crime Epidemic?

Nevertheless, some opponents of realignment are already asserting that the new policy is overburdening counties and creating a crime epidemic.

Over the past several months there have been multiple news reports charging that the realignment is increasing crime across California.

Additionally, there have been a few law enforcement assertions regarding crimes committed by locally-supervised probationers who, prior to realignment, would have been supervised by the state parole system.

While it is true that some locally-supervised offenders commit new crimes— just like some state parolees released from prison after serving full terms— there is no evidence that offenders supervised by local probation officers commit more or worse crimes than ones supervised by the state parole system.

In fact, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s latest, 2011 Adult Institutions Outcome Evaluation Report shows that 57 percent of prison parolees are re-arrested within one year of release from prison, and that nearly two-thirds of parolees will commit violations and criminal offenses meriting their return to prison within three years of release.

Far from suffering crime epidemics, crime rates in California in 2011 remained lower than any time since the 1950s.

With the exception of a few cities, crime rates are stable or trending downward.

For example, should realignment be credited with the reductions in crime, violence, and shootings reported by the police department in Los Angeles, the state’s largest city, in the first 8 months of 2012 compared to 2011?

That would also be premature.

Los Angeles’s figures remain incomplete and preliminary for 2012, as they do for other cities.

Policy makers and news reporters should approach fearsome claims about crimes and crime trends skeptically.

Misleading Anecdotes

A few cherry-picked local statistics and anecdotes of a handful of sensational offenses are inherently misleading and often contradicted when data for the full year is available for the whole state.

It will be another 6 months to a year before sufficient data are available to assess the initial effects of realignment.

Assessing the public safety impact of the new realignment policies requires a sophisticated research design and scholarly, objective information rather than emotional, scattershot rhetoric.

We also cannot yet assess the extent to which realignment affected crime compared to previous policies governing these same types of offenders. The issue is not that some previously convicted offenders commit additional offenses, whether they were managed by state prison and parole or by local jails, probation, or community programs.

The question is whether local county management handles lower-level offenders as effectively as—or more effectively than—the state.

While reducing prison populations is necessary, the state also needs to monitor counties and hold them accountable for their practices even as they aid local communities in innovating ways to manage drug and property offenders and reduce recidivism.

For some reason, state officials have been unwilling to support effective accountability structures to determine if the realignment funds are being properly expended.

While this may be risk-free politics, it is bad governance.

Mike Males is Senior Research Fellow for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) in San Francisco. Barry Krisberg is the Research and Policy Director of the Earl Warren Institute at UC Berkeley Law School. An earlier version of this essay was published Nov 27 on California Progress Report. They welcome comments from readers.

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