What does success look like?
Any Management 101 textbook will cite this as a bedrock question that must be answered before undertaking a major project. But it is clear that the state of California failed to do so before implementing its historic switch of confinement responsibilities 17 months ago.
The Legislature should resolve -- and the governor should agree -- to correct that oversight before taking any further steps to amend the law that went into effect in October 2011.
The realignment, as it is called, was offered as the collaborative answer by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature to fix a horribly overcrowded state prison system that the federal courts said violated laws for confinement of prisoners.
Realignment transferred responsibility of many supposedly lower-threat prisoners from state prisons to local jails or local probation. The state sent money to the local jurisdictions to handle the costs. The move has successfully lowered the state's numbers, but it ballooned populations in local jails as well as increased the burden on local probation operations.
Brown and his administration have told us that realignment has been a major success. The problem is that the public just has to take their word for it, because there is little empirical data to back the claim.
Most of the information about the realignment is anecdotal and many of those anecdotes are not very pretty. There have been some tragic cases of attacks by recently-freed prisoners, an apparent dramatic increase in the number of sex offenders disabling their GPS monitoring devices, spikes in property crimes in some areas as well as what seem like spikes in the number of homeless encampments, just to name a few. But specific numbers on all of these range from sketchy to nonexistent.
So much so, in fact, that many victim-rights groups are pressuring lawmakers to radically reform the realignment plan. Legislators from both sides of the aisle have already begun offering changes to the realignment law.
On top of that, the Sacramento Bee has reported that Brown told a private meeting with Stanford law professors and their students last month that he was concerned with how counties were managing their jail population. He later confirmed that he is considering legislative modification to address some of the clear problems.
And, Jeffrey Beard, California's corrections secretary, also agreed that the state had not explicitly defined "what is the criteria for success."
While there is certainly enough smoke in the anecdotes to warrant modification of the law, it seems to us that there is even a greater need for everyone involved to step back, take a deep breath and then set about crafting legislation that will spell out what measures California, the federal government and the public should use to measure success of realignment. It must set some specific and concrete goals around which any corrective legislation can be fashioned.
Only then should the Legislature begin examining and voting on the changes proposed by its members.