This week in Realignment: April 12, 2013

150 150 Christopher Nelson

In the realm of public safety realignment, there are two layers: what is actually happening and how the media chooses to connect those dots and report on the subject.

It has been an uphill battle for AB 109 implementation to say the least. Even though those sent back to counties from state facilities fall under the non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual umbrella of offenders, there is hardly a gray area in the public’s mind if realignment is in effect and crime is going up in their community; to them, it is simple math. And the media are happy to run with this narrative. Just this week, the LA Times ran a story saying that a Fontana stabbing was committed by someone released due to realignment.

To be clear: No one has or is being released early from state prison. When non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual offenders’ violate the terms of their release, they are no longer returned to prison but to local jails. As a result, jails are becoming overcrowded and so offenders who would have ordinarily been shipped to prison are never jailed or they are released early from jail. So, there are more non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual offenders in the community under supervision than when these folks were shipped off to prison for violations.

So it stands to reason that this person would have been living in that community under parole supervision and had the same opportunities to commit new crimes. When County Probation (which the man was on) says this, what they are really saying is that State Parole would have done a better job of supervising the person, which in turn says Probation isn’t doing a very good job.  

There is no evidence to suggest that the recidivism rate for offenders supervised by State Parole (about 70 percent) is better than what the rate will be with counties supervising these offenders.  Unfortunately, instead of county officials explaining this, they chose the politically safe path – to blame realignment. Constant supervision is too costly, so the solution lies in evidence-based programs that work to reduce recidivism for the least amount of money.

California Forward believes that realignment is one of the most critical issues we face because of the importance of helping local governments work together to affect real systemic change. The media can either hinder or help this effort.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from the LA Times article is a recent editorial from the Sacramento Bee entitled “Enough with all the scare tactics on public safety ‘realignment.‘” It begins by calling out Republican lawmakers responsible for stirring up a frenzy by blaming any adverse changes in crime rates on AB 109:

They refer to a “mass influx of criminals” into communities. They send out daily emails with titles such as “Another AB 109er attacks.” Nielsen refers to “the carnage that’s occurring on our streets.”

Before you panic, just remember that California’s crime rates have declined dramatically from peaks in the 1980s and 1990s. Even with an uptick in property crime rates that began several months before California launched realignment, rates still are at 1960s levels. Violent crime rates are at 1970s levels.

A one-year uptick in crime is a reason for counties to make adjustments, not to generate uproar and premature calls to reverse policy.

The editorial asks the same question about supervision under parole vs. probation making a difference, and rightly pivots to the real question: what went wrong in the entire process that allowed this person to commit another crime? 

With realignment, it is easy to be myopic but difficult to approach things holistically. We are not dealing with a perfect system to begin with, nor is AB 109 perfect legislation. So are Republicans and is the media being responsible when they whip up fear based on superficial, isolated facts?

The answer to that question hinges on how well the public is educated and how deep reporters choose to dig when reporting on public safety realignment.


Christopher Nelson

All stories by: Christopher Nelson