This week in Realignment: April 26, 2013

150 150 Christopher Nelson

Public safety realignment continues to be a the subject of much debate in California. Just last night, the popular program “Which Way LA?” hosted by Warren Olney on LA’s KCRW dedicated significant airtime to the topic. It was not the first time they have done so.

The headline for the show was “Stand-Off between the Courts, Governor on Prison Overcrowding.” Representatives from both sides of the fence debated how the stand-off could and should play out. 

Martin Hoshino from the CDCR trotted out Gov. Brown’s line that releasing the additional 10,000 offenders from state prisons to meet the full Court mandate represents a public safety threat. Don Specter, who argued the case before the Supreme Court on behalf of inmates, repeated the notion that it’s black and white in that noncompliance with the court order equals contempt and that there are low-risk ways to comply.

Jerry Powers, Chief of the LA County Probation Department and Karen Lane, Prevention Network Director at the Community Coalition were both asked by Olney if AB 109 is working. Their responses (which basically said it’s too early to tell) were without what we and the Sacramento Bee editorial board consider to be a critical question: Why aren’t we collecting data so we can give a definitive answer to Olney’s question?

This is not to say that both Powers and Lane were not eloquent or nuanced in the discussion (they were). But the popular tagline that this is the biggest public safety gambit in the history of the state and the nation makes the fact that there is no mandate for tracking it even more incredulous.

In a recent paper she authored, Joan Petersilia said it best: “Despite the fact that it is the biggest penal experiment in modern history, the state provided no funding to evaluate its overall effect on crime, incarceration, justice agencies, or recidivism.”

Without concrete data to fall back on, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether spikes in some types of crimes in some cities are tied to realignment or not. But with increased crime comes increased unrest on the part of constituents, which has some calling for a repeal of AB 109 already. Gov. Brown, who plans on seeking another term, is publicly siding with these voices in his battle with the courts.

Without mincing words, to repeal would be a horrible decision. The long-term goal in all of this should be to reduce recidivism to reduce repeating criminal behavior and as a means to combat overcrowding . We are pleased to see other voices joining the chorus wondering why no funding was earmarked for data collection, analysis and research If the voluntary efforts of the new Board of State and Community Corrections, Chief Probation Officers of California, and California State Sheriffs’ Association can be augmented, there is hope. One cannot implement “evidence-based” practices without evidence.

And in that arena, we actually received a recent boost at the Federal level. From ABC: 

Gil Kerlikowske, director of the National Drug Control Policy, released President Barack Obama’s 2013 strategy for fighting drug addiction Wednesday at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore. The strategy includes a greater emphasis on using public health tools to battle addiction and diverting non-violent drug offenders into treatment instead of prisons.

“The strategy’s ‘smart on crime’ approach proposes criminal justice reforms, including drug courts and smart probation programs that reduce incarceration rates, along with community-based policing programs that break the cycle of drug use, crime, and incarceration while focusing limited enforcement resources on more serious offenses,” said the NDCP in some documentation on their strategy.

Which comes full circle back to the importance of evidence-based practices allowing local governments to spend their money wisely and effectively. CSAC uses the term “Smart Justice” when referring to successes using things such as rehabilitation over incarceration for reducing recidivism. This approach fights the revolving door effect by “assessing the offenders to identify their individual ‘criminogenic’ factors, to find out what makes it more likely they will re-offend and what can be done to mitigate those factors.”

Evidence-based practices work. That’s where they get their name from. Not only do they have an effective end-result, but the constant collection and analysis of data allows for mid-stream tweaks based on what is working the best.

Now we just need the state to get behind this notion so that we can turn sporadic success stories from a few counties taking matters into their own hands into a statewide one.


Christopher Nelson

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