This week in Realignment: April 19, 2013

150 150 Christopher Nelson

This week begins with some simple math. With all of the speculation and prognostication surrounding public safety realignment, arithmetic provides the most succinct summary of what is happening:

There are approximately 190,000 jail and prison beds in the state. The number of offenders in the state exceeds the number of beds. We either need to choose who we want in those beds, or build more jails and prisons. And if we are going to build more jails and prisons, we have to find a way to pay for them, which means either giving something up, or raising taxes. 

We have to make choices. The smartest choices are based in evidence and are proven to combat recidivism and reduce the number of future offenders. Risk assessment is key. If you lock up everyone, you’ll get people who are likely to re-offend and people who aren’t. The dollars just aren’t there for this level of incarceration. Without validated  risk and needs assessment, you disrupt the lives of those who would not have re-offended, which in turn affects family and children, which in turn places burdens on the system elsewhere. 

This simple cost/benefit analysis must be part of our thinking. Again, it comes down to arithmetic.

Moving on, we have two starkly contrasted examples of media who “get it” and those who do not.

First up, a recent piece published by the Times-Standard in Alameda County carries the somewhat innocuous headline “Criminal realignment costing local businesses.” But upon reading the article, one quickly finds that it is focused exclusively on the bail bond business. This slant could not be more flawed.

“It seems that the article is saying that if by changing the criminal justice system to improve public safety and smartly spend resources we end up having less need for bail, that we should artificially support the bail industry just for the sake of preserving the industry,” said Sharon Aungst, Director of The Partnership.

The second story, which comes from the national publication The Atlantic, proves a few things. First, California public safety realignment is a national story, both because of the scope of this experiment in our nation’s most populous state and its dovetail with the Supreme Court.

Second, realignment is very much a local story, but local reporting can lean toward the superficial and ignore big picture context. While Andrew Cohen’s piece in The Atlantic is very much a big picture one (and also a fairly seared indictment of how, in his words, the state has attempted to skirt its constitutional duties based on some very flawed motions it filed), it  clearly contains a depth of reporting that is frequently missing from outlets which decide to condemn by oversimplifying something this complex.

Our take is that Gov. Brown knows he won’t get reelected if he doesn’t fight the court. Once he is re-elected then it won’t matter…yet California will pay a great price, as we have all along with this.

Adding further context to the back and forth between Gov. Brown and the Court is the editorial board for the Los Angeles Times (and in the process proving that some California publications do still understand the nuance of public safety realignment).

And once again, as both The Atlantic and the Times point out, it comes down to mathematics. Gov. Brown is making claims that the health care crisis in California state prisons is over. However, in the Court rulings recently handed down, there is one number that trumps all: 137.5 percent. This is the percentage of current state prison capacity that the collective population be reduced to be in compliance.

It is telling that 37.5% over the originally intended capacity of the prison’s engineers is the new benchmark. For those wondering, the population prior to AB 109 was over two times more than capacity.

As the Times editorial board points out, it is an unenviable position that Gov. Brown finds himself in:

“The governor deserves some sympathy for his political plight. On one side he’s got the courts, which want more inmates out of the system. On the other side are Republican lawmakers and local officials from both parties who complain that the 2011 realignment law already results in too many felons who violate parole terms being turned away from county jails, which are also crowded, instead of being returned to the state prisons. Some of them falsely assert that realignment released felons from prison early; imagine how they would react if Brown really did order the early release of more than 9,000 felons.”

In all of our championing of risk assessment and evidence based practices as a means to hit the Court’s mandated target, we can’t help but agree the most with the final line of the piece:

“The choice need not be between obeying the U.S. Constitution and letting violent felons go free. Other states manage the problem. California can too.”


Christopher Nelson

All stories by: Christopher Nelson