Crime rates are squirrely things.
Criminologists will tell you they've been struggling for a hundred years to figure out what makes levels of outlaw behavior rise or fall.
Judging by the comments posted below online newspaper stories, that doesn't stop a lot of us from opining on the topic, often fueled by the latest headline and perhaps a beer or two.
Now, despite the somewhat quixotic nature of the quest, Monterey County officials are working to come up with a more fact-based view of local crime and whether state prisoner realignment plays any role in it.
Two years ago, dire predictions sounded in Monterey County and elsewhere as state legislators prepared to approve what many call California's most dramatic upheaval in criminal justice policy.
Local police agencies held public meetings to warn that crime rates would climb if hundreds of inmates were shifted away from prison and "realigned" to county custody.
Despite those warnings, lawmakers, pressured by federal court orders to quickly reduce the prison population, approved the shuffling of inmates convicted of lower-level offenses from state custody to counties.
Now, more than a year after California's rapid prisoner realignment went into effect, we have yet to know if the grim predictions have come true.
Crime rates did climb a bit in the state's larger cities last year, and some officials were quick to attribute the uptick to realignment.
But a few local leaders say those cries
"I don't think we can show any correlation yet between realignment and violent crime," Sheriff Scott Miller said. "And the jury is still out on whether it correlates to property crime."
Push for answers
So the question looms: Does keeping lower-level offenders out of prison result in more crime?
That question has sent researchers and public safety officials around the state sleuthing for answers.
"The statistics wars are already starting," said Monterey County Chief Assistant District Attorney Terry Spitz.
Monterey is one of the few California counties aggressively tackling the question, and in a few weeks, local officials hope to have some preliminary data ready for prime time.
Monterey County Assistant District Attorney Berkley Brannon said local authorities are motivated by "the desire to know and be able to evaluate what we're doing."
From the start, their challenge was compounded by the fact that the state hasn't allocated money for counties to conduct the research.
"I do find it remarkable that they decided not to have any funding to track it," Brannon said. In fact, there's no requirement to collect any special data at all, he said.
"It's completely up to each county," he said. "You have to fund it yourself."
Pushing ahead with its own resources, Monterey County is on the front lines of the quest. Last summer, at a California district attorneys' conference, Brannon said he spoke about the county's efforts to measure realignment's impact.
"Nobody came up to me and said, 'We're doing that,'" he said. "I don't think that this is very widespread."
Brannon suggested that the sparse research that is being done may be relying on incomplete information.
For example, a few counties and at least one advocacy group are using FBI uniform crime reports to gauge whether realignment helped spur a rise last year in California crime.
In a report released last month, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice cites FBI statistics for the first half of 2012 to make the case that realignment hasn't caused crime rates to climb. The statistics are the first reported crime data released since realignment went into effect in October 2011.
"One would expect counties with higher percentages of realigned offenders to show the biggest increases in violent crimes," write the authors of "California's Urban Crime Increase in 2012: Is 'Realignment' to Blame?" Instead, they state, "the opposite is true."
The report concludes that realigned offenders "do not appear disproportionately responsible for reported crime increases in 40 California cities in the first half of 2012."
In Monterey County, though, the FBI's crime numbers were mixed — violent crimes went down slightly in the first half of 2012 (compared with 2011), while the number of property crimes shot up 14 percent.
The problem is the center's report only looked at overall crime rates, not whether realigned offenders actually committed those crimes.
The authors do note that more precise research is called for. "Understanding why some California cities showed increased violent and property crime in early 2012 and others showed declines ... requires further, careful analysis," the report states.
The most accurate way to measure realignment's impact is to track all realigned offenders to see if they're committing new crimes — the kind of analysis Monterey County is attempting.
While some commonly used measures of recidivism track the number of times an inmate returns to prison, or any new arrests, Brannon said the best gauge is seeing whether an offender has a new criminal conviction.
That may sound easy enough to track, but it isn't.
Until recently, local technology issues made it a nearly impossible task.
Probation chief Manuel Real said the difficulty boiled down to incompatible data sources.
Realigned offenders fall into two categories that are tracked by three different county agencies, he said.
Some are sentenced by the courts to jail, falling under the auspices of the Sheriff's Office. Others who recently left prison now come under the supervision of county officers.
Those agencies' various databases just "don't talk to each other," Real said.
Brannon said the county has surmounted the hurdle by collecting reports on those offenders from probation and the jail, then manually entering the information into a new database.
It's a low-tech solution to a high-tech problem, requiring old-fashioned data entry.
But Brannon said the fruits should become evident soon, once a four-page list of search queries is handed to county technology experts so new convictions and other relevant data can be extracted.
Preliminary results could come in a few weeks, he said.
Too soon to tell
But pulling out data is only part of the analysis challenge.
Brannon points out that very few realigned offenders are even out of jail or off supervision yet, and therefore haven't been in a position to commit new crimes.
That's one reason he questions the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice report's early conclusions.
"We don't have a lot of people who've been out for one year," he said, adding that he questions results "based on that short of a view."
Brannon believes the most important analyses won't come for perhaps two to three years.
Until then, he said, the county's effort to decipher realignment's effect on crime is "very laudable."
Julia Reynolds can be reached at 648-1187 or email@example.com.