Thomas D. Elias: Prison realignment options could be worse
As crime statistics for 2012 gradually filter in from around the state, gripes about the 15-month-old prison realignment program have begun rising in newspaper headlines and talk show airwaves.
There are two major complaints: One is that crime rose as realignment cut the inmate populace by more than 24,000. The other is that some criminals are being released earlier than before the program began in October 2011, in part because local jails in a few counties are overcrowded.
A typical gripe comes from Tyler Izen, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the state's largest police union. "Our members are terribly concerned that we are allowing people out of prisons who are likely to recommit crimes and victimize the people of our city," he said in a telephone interview.
He claimed probation departments have lost track of some former prisoners, but could offer no specific examples. "All I have is anecdotal information," he conceded.
It turns out that only one of those big gripes has any proven merit: In a few counties, Fresno being a prime example, prisoners are often released after serving minimal jail time. But sheriffs and the state Department of Corrections insist the releases never involve violent or sexual criminals and that ex-convicts get the same level of parole and probation supervision they did before.
As for the other complaint, it turns out the crime numbers reported so far are pretty mixed. Violent crimes in Los Angeles, for example, were down last year for the 10th year in a row, dropping 8.2 percent to a total of 18,293, with significant decreases in robbery and aggravated assault and 152 gang-related homicides, the fewest in more than 10 years.
But property crime was up slightly in LA, by 0.2 percent, with Police Chief Charles Beck attributing the uptick to a 30 percent increase in cellphone thefts. Beck said some of the small increase in property crime might be due to realignment.
In surrounding Los Angeles County, homicides were at 166, the lowest number since 1970.
By contrast, murders were up in the San Francisco Bay area, increasing from 248 in 2010 and 275 in 2011 to 310 last year. Almost all the increase took place in three cities, San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland, where killings rose 52 percent over two years. Taken together, those three cities lost more than 850 police officers to budget cuts over the last three years, which may help explain some of their homicide increase. The other dozen cities in the region reporting had 24 percent less murders over that period, and overall, Bay area slayings remain well below historic highs.
It's a mixed bag, with preliminary numbers for the first six months of last year showing violent crime in major cities may have climbed 4 percent and property crime 9 percent.
Even at that, crime overall appears to be well below the historic peaks of the 1980s.
And in 2011, California crime ranked third from the bottom among the ten largest states.
No one yet knows if the preliminary numbers will stand up or if any increases are due to realignment.
But it's certain that given the order to free thousands of prisoners that came from federal judges backed by the US Supreme Court, things could be much worse.
"The governor was presented with three choices," his press secretary, Gil Duran, wrote in an email. Brown, Duran said, could have defied the order, precipitating a constitutional crisis.
He also could have released prisoners willy-nilly, without concern for public safety. Or he could do something like the realignment program, which keeps all serious, violent or sexual offenders in prisons.
The program transfers no present state prison inmates to county jails and allows no one placed there to be released earlier than they otherwise would have been. All felons sent to state prison will do all their time there.
The inmate reduction stems mainly from two categories: About 14,000 are parole violators who would have been sent back to state prison and now go to county jails instead, if parole violation is their sole new offense. Another 10,000 staying in county jails previously would have gone to state prison for felonies that were not sexual, violent or serious, by legal definition.
None of those inmates can have prior convictions in these three categories, either.
"A mass release of serious felons was on the table due to the court order," said Terri McDonald, undersecretary of the state prison system. "We had to find an alternative that left higher-risk offenders in state prison.
"The crime numbers now are all over the place, so it's far too soon to know what's really happening on the streets," she added.
Which means no one knows yet whether realignment has caused crime to rise slightly or not. But one thing is certain: Most alternatives to doing realignment as it now works could have been a lot worse.