Year in Review: Public Safety Realignment and the PCE

150 150 Christopher Nelson

(photo: Wiki Commons)

This past year has been a banner year for both Realignment in the world of criminal justice and for California Forward’s Partnership for Community Excellence (PCE), which has been a key player in helping counties go about implementing the two year old legislation known as AB 109 in a smart and cost-effective manner.

In October of 2011, the media and certain politicians were selling a story of coming, widespread spikes in crime due to felons being let loose from state prisons back into the communnities where they committed their offenses. State prisons were too crowded and Gov. Brown had no choice but send them back to where they came from.

Fast-forward two years and despite some initial speedbumps, what continues to be California’s largest public safety experiment in the past century is starting to see positive results. The media has come around to a more nuanced approach and politicians can support the effort without getting chastised for being “soft on crime.” These are all good things.

We asked some questions of Sharon Aungst, who is the director of the PCE and has a wealth of experience managing various aspects of corrections for multiple states throughout her career. Here Aungst has a chance to reflect on the past year, talk about the successes and failures, and discuss what 2014 holds for the Partnership.

How did the landscape of Realignment change through 2013 and what were the most significant positives gains made?

Several things have happened. Despite the fact that the State has provided no funding for research, several researchers have sought private funding to gather and analyze data, which has told us a few things about where Realignment stands. PPIC just released their report on how crime has been affected by Realignment. Dr. Joan Petersilia of Stanford released two reports in November detailing how counties view Realignment and the challenges they are facing. These are the first major reports from the research community attempting to look at the statewide effects of Realignment. 

The most significant findings we have gleaned from these reports are:

  • Most county leaders believe that Realignment is here to stay and they are actively trying to make it work. They also acknowledge that there should be no going back to the broken system of old;  
  • There has been an increase in auto thefts but no increase in violent crime as a result of Realignment;  
  • Counties have concerns about how quickly Realignment happened, how they ended up with more violent offenders than they expected, and how difficult it was to hire and train staff and make the adjustments necessary to make Realignment work; 
  • Implementation of Realignment has been difficult and has resulted in less than stellar results at times;
  • Realignment has brought tremendous change in all parts of the criminal justice system and many unintended consequences are surfacing along the way;
  • Counties are having success. Dr. Petersilia observes that many are collaborating in unprecedented ways on “jointly funded initiatives, eliminating duplication, and approaching justice from a system wide rather than a narrower agency perspective.”  We have found in our 8 ACA-related convenings with 26 counties that they vary greatly in their approaches and are all doing some incredible work, such as starting pretrial programs, using data in new and different ways (including participating in Pew’s Results First Initiative), creating new partnerships, developing new evidence-based programs versus building more jail beds, and in general, creating partnerships that have not existed before;
  • Having talked to the lead researchers of these studies, they all unequivocally say in regard to their findings that “this does not mean that Realignment has failed.” 

What are the things that the Partnership for Community Excellence (PCE) has been saying since AB 109 went into effect that are now being adopted as conventional wisdom?

Research on Realignment is paramount to AB 109’s success and we have been fairly critical of the fact that no state funding was provided. Now there seems to be more agreement that this is important. Without research, we can only rely on anecdotal evidence which the ideological Right and Left use to prove whatever point(s) they want to make. I can’t imagine that anyone really believed that Realignment would be a total success or failure.  The truth usually resides somewhere in between these two extremes – so how do we know how to improve our results if we have no objective evidence as to where the problems are?

Als that evidence-based and data-driven decision-making will require significant system change.  It requires local data that can be used in tandem with the evidence-base to make better decisions. The State holds significant data that is often provided by counties yet is difficult for counties (and researchers) to access.

In general, we have advised people not to fall victim to the alarmist media narrative of the first year and the one that Abel Maldanado preached well into the second year of AB 109 as an attempt to paint Gov. Brown as soft on crime. We’ve always known that this will be a long process, one that won’t show immediate results. We are just beginning to see counties turn the corner in terms of capacity building and in their understanding of the sheer scope and impact of what AB 109 means for them.

Talk about the progress made with counties on the Affordable Care Act and how much more prepared the counties we have worked with are to take advantage of all the ACA has to offer?

The 8 convenings we have held with 26 counties seemed to be very helpful based on post-convening survey data and our discussions with county leaders. We had experts explain the basics of ACA and more importantly, the opportunities for counties in leveraging AB 109 funding in conjunction with the ACA. Most justice-involved individuals had never been eligible for Medi-Cal before the expansion of health benefits as part of the ACA. This opens up options for counties for pretrial programs and assuring that probationers receive the services they need, such as behavioral health, which has a huge impact on recidivism.  Over half of each convening was devoted to county teams identifying opportunities, strategies, and next steps to move this forward. We know how some counties have followed up and are now looking at what the rest of the counties which participated are doing to move forward.      

Which counties “get” evidence based practices? What are they doing right and what could other counties learn from them?

I think most people in criminal justice get the purpose of using evidence-based practices (EBPs). What is more difficult is understanding how to implement them. Each one has specific processes that must be completed in a very specific way. This is hard to do while you are putting out fires.  EBPs also require significant start-up funding and support for data collection and analysis to determine whether or not the program is being implemented as designed and getting the outcomes intended. There is also a whole science around implementation, about what works and doesn’t work in implementing programs. So this is complex – and, more importantly, for EBPs to work, we have to make many systemic changes that will take time. This is the piece that the PCE wants to focus on next year – working with a few counties around systemic change. Without significant changes in our systems, EBPs won’t be that helpful as they require the types of activities and processes (mentioned above) that often do not exist now.   

Many counties were implementing EBPs well before Realignment started. For example, SB 678 was a major step in the right direction which helped counties get a head start.

What will the focus of the PCE be in 2014 and what are the major hurdles California needs to clear into to maintain the path to success in Realignment? 

As mentioned earlier, focusing on a small sample of counties to enact wholesale systemic change in order to pave the way for successful and widespread use of EBPs. If done correctly, these just may serve as a future model for other counties in the state going forward.

What has the state gotten right and what could it do better?

The state has shown a willingness to take a bold step and to stay the course despite the challenges of the first two years. However, with little objective evidence to suggest where the State needs to make tweaks in the law or related laws, which will absolutely be needed, it’s difficult to see how the next few years will play out. We have a few studies but need many more if we are to identify the specific ways to fix the problems.  We have also said that Realignment is a local story – and the ultimate success of Realignment will be a county by county success.  The State can help or harm these efforts depending on what actions it takes over time.  


Christopher Nelson

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