PALO ALTO -- Two years after California loaded responsibility for most low-level criminal offenders onto counties, the titanic policy shift, according to a new study, is getting mixed reviews from law enforcement and justice officials, many of whom continue to fret about a possible rise in crime and decline in public safety.
The Stanford Criminal Justice Center's eye-opening report is the first comprehensive look at how those involved in one of the most sweeping correctional experiments in recent history really feel about it.
Researchers fanned out to 21 counties across the state, interviewing 125 representatives of every aspect of the criminal justice system, from police to judges to offenders themselves.
The study, dubbed "Voices from the Field: How California Stakeholders View Public Safety Realignment,'' finds that most are cautiously optimistic about the controversial "realignment'' of the criminal justice system. The change expanded local control and shifted the emphasis to treatment options for offenders rather than mass incarceration. Many California residents fed up with prison spending also supported the change.
"What was most surprising was nobody said it should be repealed,'' said Stanford law professor Joan Petersilia, the study's author and an advocate of the change. "They are on board seriously; it's not just mouthing it, because they know the previous system was failing on almost every dimension," including the highest recidivism rate in the nation.
But opinions varied, with probation officials the most enthusiastic about realignment and prosecutors among the least supportive. Also, stakeholders know it would be futile to fight the change since it came about in response to a court order requiring the state to solve its prison overcrowding crisis by any means possible. California still is about 8,600 inmates over the limit, with about two months left to comply with a federal court order.
Among the most striking findings in the 246-page study: More than 100,000 felons have been diverted to counties for punishment and post-release supervision since October 2011, when the state began a hurried retreat from its costly, tough-on-crime approach. Scholars say it's too early to link realignment to a 2.8 percent increase and 6.9 percent rise in the violent and property crime rates, respectively, between 2011 and 2012. But police believe property crime in particular has gone up because realignment puts more offenders with a record of property-crime convictions on the streets sooner. The auto theft rate, which police believe represents a truer measure of property crime because of the reporting requirement to obtain insurance payouts, increased by 13.6 percent. In San Jose, it shot up 67 percent, but the Police Department also was being slammed by budget cutbacks during the same period. Jail conditions could well turn out to be the "dark side" of realignment -- and not just in the more than 30 counties with overcrowded lockups. Jails across the state weren't designed for long-term stays, so other problems crop up: They offer substandard health care that might spawn another wave of prisoner-rights litigation. Yet such problems may prompt counties to eventually adopt more rehabilitative sentencing structures, including the use of post-release supervision, services and programming. In the meantime, as jails fill up with more serious offenders who would have gone to prison under the old system, some counties have stopped prosecuting people for low-level crimes. In Sacramento, for instance, suspects who commit certain theft crimes and low-level drug offenses aren't charged, raising concerns about public safety. But in Santa Clara County, a new diversion program run by the District Attorney's Office still aims to hold low-level offenders accountable. Instead of facing charges, they pay a program fee and restitution, perform community service and attend rehabilitative classes. In a "perverse" effect of realignment, many offenders actually manage to dodge drug treatment and other rehabilitation programs by choosing to do "straight time" behind bars. That's because unlike the old prison/parole system, the new system doesn't require a period of post-release supervision and the new rehabilitation programs and services that often come along with it. Now, everyone who opts only for jail serves a maximum of half their sentence. Others are released even sooner because of overcrowding, particularly in Los Angeles County. Without post-release supervision, there are fewer opportunities for the authorities to detect new crime, including the loss of the ability to conduct warrantless searches and seizures of former inmates. On the bright side, collaboration between stakeholders is leading to innovations. San Diego County, for instance, has found a way to deliver counseling and other rehabilitative services even to inmates who choose straight time. Prisoners stay in a special residential re-entry center in the jail for part of their sentence. Then they serve the rest of it outside the jail walls under the care of a special "mandatory supervision court," at first while wearing a GPS tracking device.
The study makes several recommendations, including to create a statewide tracking database for offenders under probation supervision in the counties, as there is for parolees. Without it, officers can't determine whether someone is a potentially dangerous offender under supervision.
Such a database is already in the works and will be tested in Los Angeles County starting later this month, said Covina police Chief Kim Raney, president of the California Police Chiefs Association.
The state Attorney General's Office also is working on a new way to measure recidivism, he said, which used to be gauged by how often offenders return to prison within three years. Once that is accomplished, the state will have a better idea of realignment's effect on the crime rate.
Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482. Follow her at Twitter.com/tkaplanreport.