For California Prison Realignment Hype, Scary Tales Deserve Skepticism

Source: California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation

Over the last 30 years, California has created an oversized, overcrowded prison system entailing billions of dollars in taxpayer expense, endless safety and health crises, a dismal record of rehabilitation, and increasingly proscriptive court orders to regulate almost all aspects of prison operations.

One major reason for this crisis is that a number of counties were over-relying on the state system by sending thousands of lower-level property and drug offenders to prison. California’s legislature and governor had no choice but to cut prisoner numbers. They mandated that counties, as of October 1, 2011, could no longer send offenders to state prison unless they were convicted of serious, violent, or sex crimes.

Called “realignment,” the state plan aimed to reduce prison populations by 40,000 over the next five years, saving taxpayers around $2 billion annually and recognizing that unnecessary incarceration does not achieve public safety goals. Realignment is the first step in making local jurisdictions more self-reliant – with the added hope that the counties will design better strategies to prevent reoffending than prisons have.

So far, realignment has been meeting its stated goals. In its first year, prison numbers fell by 27,000. While the numbers of violent, serious, and sex offenders committed to state prison remain the same, counties are assuming responsibility for their drug possession, petty theft, car boosting, and other low-level offenders that are best managed locally.

It is too early to assess the effects of realignment, if any, on crime rates. These data won’t be available for several months. Nevertheless, some opponents of realignment are already asserting that the new policy is overburdening counties and creating a crime epidemic.

Over the past several months there have been multiple news reports charging that the realignment is increasing crime across California. Additionally, there have been a few law enforcement assertions regarding crimes committed by locally-supervised probationers who, prior to realignment, would have been supervised by the state parole system.

While it is true that some locally-supervised offenders commit new crimes – just like some state parolees released from prison after serving full terms – there is no evidence that offenders supervised by local probation officers commit more or worse crimes than ones supervised by the state parole system.

In fact, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s latest, 2011 Adult Institutions Outcome Evaluation Report shows that 57 percent of prison parolees are rearrested within one year of release from prison, and nearly two-thirds of parolees will commit violations and criminal offenses meriting their return to prison within three years of release.

Far from suffering crime epidemics, crime rates in California in 2011 remained lower than any time since the 1950s. With the exception of a few cities, crime rates are stable or trending downward.

For example, should realignment be credited with the reductions in crime, violence, and shootings reported by the police department in Los Angeles, the state’s largest city, in the first 8 months of 2012 compared to 2011? That would also be premature. Los Angeles’s figures remain incomplete and preliminary for 2012, as they do for other cities.

Policy makers and news reporters should approach fearsome claims about crimes and crime trends skeptically. A few cherry-picked local statistics and anecdotes of a handful of sensational offenses are inherently misleading and often contradicted when data for the full year is available for the whole state.

It will be another 6 months to a year before sufficient data are available to assess the initial effects of realignment. Assessing the public safety impact of the new realignment policies requires a sophisticated research design and scholarly, objective information rather than emotional, scattershot rhetoric.

We also cannot yet assess the extent to which realignment affected crime compared to previous policies governing these same types of offenders. The issue is not that some previously convicted offenders commit additional offenses, whether they were managed by state prison and parole or by local jails, probation, or community programs. The question is whether local county management handles lower-level offenders as or more effectively than the state.

While reducing prison populations is necessary, the state also needs to monitor counties and hold them accountable for their practices even as they aid local communities in innovating ways to manage drug and property offenders and reduce recidivism. For some reason, state officials have been unwilling to support effective accountability structures to determine if the realignment funds are being properly expended. While this may be risk free politics, it is bad governance.

Mike Males is Senior Research Fellow for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) in San Francisco. Barry Krisberg is the Research and Policy Director of the Earl Warren Institute at UC Berkeley Law School.


  1. avatarLynne says

    I want to share our website address with the authors of this inaccurate and deceptive piece about prison realignment. They obviously need an education about who is being released under 109, what crimes are considered non, non, non’s and about California’s ever increasing crime rates. It is amazing to me that either these authors are not concerned with educating readers with the truth or they know nothing about the subject matter. Whichever the cause for this misleading and completely inaccurate piece on AB109, the truth is out there and no one can continue to deceive the public anymore. It is insulting that these authors think their readers are stupid enough to continue to believe this pro-109 rhetoric. Every one is learning the truth because of the efforts of our Restore Public Safety statewide campaign, the headlines themselves of heinous crimes being committed by AB109ers, the quotes from the criminals themselves who absolutely love AB109 and the soaring crime rates of 2012. I am embarrassed for the authors of this piece because of the level of inaccuracy contained within these paragraphs and I find it a pathetic attempt to push a pro-109 agenda while either turning a blind eye to the truth. Either that or they wrote this piece without any knowledge of the issue. The authors could really serve to invest some time at and watch the AB109 tutorial power point. Or I’d be more than happy to bring our AB109 community training program directly to them so they can write their next 109 piece from an educated position.

  2. avatarAmy B says

    Try talking to those on the front lines, those in the trenches, those arresting and re-arresting parolees day in and day out because there is no reprecussions for committing crime in this blue state. The same offenders 109 deems non violent are out murdering, raping and molesting, all with little to no supervision the overloaded counties. They cat keep up and how can we expect them to? This ill-fated attempt at reinventing the wheel, shifting from State Parole to County Probation is costing lives and creating victims. Do your homework, San Diego

  3. avatarFrank says

    It’s worth noting that those county that depended on incarceration as the tool for crime prevention are the counties complaining and demanding more state tax dollars. Counties that looked for alternatives to incarceration don’t have overcrowded jails and have proven to reduce recidivism. Fact is crime rates are at all time lows and there are many reasons for that including better policing. Without a doubt those screaming the loudest are those with a vested interest in arrest,conviction and incarceration. Rather than bleeding the state for more money, it would benefit everyone by looking at the evidence based programs that are working in the rest of the state and adopting these practices in the counties that are dependent on incarceration.

  4. avatarJoe says

    Great article. Clearly we are unnecessarily incarcerating our fellow citizens.

    You should also look into how minority citizens are being sentenced to state prison in comparison to anglo’s charged with the exact same crimes being sentenced to probation.