(photo credit: Chris Miller)
California has undergone some dramatic changes in the crime and punishment sector since its prison population began receiving scrutiny from federal courts. The primary example of this is Realignment, a complex shift in responsibility that put more control and responsibility in the hands of counties. The years since this change have been something of a public safety puberty period: a time of growing pains, strides and setbacks.
This shift in the corrections system has placed more emphasis on rehabilitation programs, which is why the Public Policy Institute of California this month convened state senator Darrell Steinberg, assembly member Melissa Melendez, and California State Association of Counties’ Matthew Cate for a discussion with moderator Mark Baldassare (president and CEO of PPIC) on the successes and failures of Realignment and the next steps toward shoring up the prison system.
“Last year was a significant turning point, in my view,” said Steinberg. “Realignment took our prison population down from 142,000 to 120,000, but it’s still overcrowded. Public policy making is a matter of choices. But I would assert that when it comes to our decision to pass Realignment, it wasn’t really a choice. It was the right choice, but there wasn’t really a choice at all.”
All three panelists acknowledged the relative youth of Realignment and the difficulty that poses when it comes to making an honest assessment of it, as well as how critical prevention is for any type of lasting success.
“First, we at least need to focus on the prisoners that are probably most easily rehabilitated – young people,” said Melendez. “Get them while they’re young and teach them a different path, better choices. Show them that there is a chance for them out there. I would like to see more money diverted to helping these kids.”
Cate concurred with Melendez on the importance of this early-on intervention, and applied it to people with mental health issues. “If you don’t intervene early, once a mentally ill person enters the system they recidivate at 80 percent or more,” Cate said. “It’s very hard for them to find their way out of the system once they’re in.”
Melendez, who represents part of Riverside County, chose her words carefully when asked about the impact of Realignment on her constituents. “Within months of Realignment going into effect my county was already impacted,” she said. “We’ve seen that property crime and auto thefts have gone up since Realignment went into effect.” Melendez then pointed to the programs intended to prevent recidivism and promote prevention as not being quite up to snuff.
“The programs we have in place haven’t been evaluated,” Melendez said. “There’s no tangible evidence to say this is an effective program. We keep tweaking how things look without even knowing what we have right now. If you ask me if Realignment is working, I think it depends on your definition of working. From the average community member’s standpoint, I’d say no.”
However, Sharon Aungst, the Director of the Partnership for Community Excellence, did not agree with Melendez’s black and white interpretation of things. “Although we need more data and to evaluate programs, it is important to note several key points,” Aungst said. And they are:
- Much data is being collected but is not easily accessible. Some state agencies do not share data, even with the counties that provide it, so it has been a struggle for researchers and others to evaluate programs.
- Data is often not used to make decisions. Too often the state and counties use their gut and our guts are simply not reliable. The data is only useful when used to inform policy decisions.
- Many programs being implemented do have a strong evidence base. Unfortunately, there is not enough assessment of fidelity to determine if we are implementing the program they way it was designed and to determine if we are getting the results expected.
- Lastly, if the legislature wants to know if things are working, they should fund research. Every major initiative the state has funded has devoted 5 percent for research. For whatever reason, the Legislature did not fund research on realignment. They can easily remedy this situation.
Sen. Steinberg summed the current state of realignment most succinctly: “The question isn’t whether Realignment is working,” said Steinberg. “It’s what are we going to do to assure it absolutely works.”