OAKLAND -- Alternatives to incarceration and methods to control crime highlighted the final discussion in the Safe Oakland Speakers Series.

Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA, challenged the audience with his philosophy of "Crime and Punishment: How to Have Less of Both" during the June 26 meeting held at Holy Names University. He has co-authored several works on the subject and a book of the same name was honored by the Economist magazine as one of the books of the year in 2009. Kleiman painted a grim picture of crime locally and throughout the nation.

"The United States in general and Oakland in particular has a disgraceful crime rate higher than almost any other country with which we would like to compare ourselves," he said. America currently has 2.3 million people in prison, Kleiman said. That translates to 1 percent of the nation's total population and is five times the rate of any comparable nations. The United States locks up more inmates than China, and the U.S. incarceration rate is higher than the Soviet Union when dictator Joseph Stalin died in the 1950s, Kleiman said.

"I don't know about you, but I am having a hard time understanding the term 'home of the free,' " he said.


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The statistics among people of color are worse. Four percent of the nation's African Americans are behind bars, a rate of 4,000 inmates per 100,000 people. African American males who don't graduate from high school have a better-than-even chance of being sent to prison by age 30, Kleiman said.

Though most leaders agree that poverty is the leading cause of crime, crime is also the leading cause of poverty and to fix one before you fix the other is entirely backward, he said. Like other crime experts, Kleiman insists that long prison sentences are not the answer. He favors close community monitoring of inmates and shorter jail stays if they violate the terms of their parole or probation.

He cited as examples programs in Hawaii and South Dakota in which substance abusers are checked several times each week and sent back to jail if they test positive for drugs or exceed the legal limit when taking an alcohol breath test twice a day.

This provides clear guidelines and a method for offenders to regulate their behavior, Kleiman reasoned. Many inmates grew up in chaotic circumstances and cannot make long-term plans to reform because it has not proved successful in the past, he said.

But staying clean and out of jail for a few days can provide the structure they need to eventually change negative behavior. This puts community probation workers on the front lines of crime control by making sanctions more focused and specific rather than sending probationers back to prison for any one of a number of violations, he added.

Alternatives to incarceration is one of the methods being used as California realigns its prison population to meet court-ordered reforms because of prison overcrowding. The state has revised penalties for several nonviolent crimes to ensure that offenders serve sentences in county jails rather than state facilities.

The diversion also allows officials like acting Alameda County Chief Probation Officer LaDonna Harris to offer social services to probationers in hopes of heading off future crime. Harris' office oversees 18,000 youth and adult clients.

Alameda County does not send as many offenders to prison as other counties do, and the recidivism rate (inmates who reoffend) is only 27 percent compared with 70 percent statewide. Probationers are given a risk assessment test when released from custody, and services are applied accordingly.

Employment is the biggest need of those being released, followed by mental health treatment and practical life skills, she said. Being broke and on the streets will cause many offenders to turn to crime once more, she said.

Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley echoed the need for social services to help offenders turn around their lives. She stressed the county has made an effort to help victims by ordering more than $11 million in restitution.

Kleiman insisted that accessing social services should not be the only way offenders get on the right track. Their involvement should be voluntary and not the replacement for close monitoring and consistent penalties if they won't comply with the terms of their probation, he added.

Harris said she would "agree to disagree'' with that notion, insisting that some clients do not know they have a problem until they are forced to undergo treatment.