Too early to judge prison reform

By Daniel Weintraub

Film at eleven.

Those three words became a part of our language thanks to local television news, which employed them to tease viewers into staying up late to see footage of the latest grisly crime scene.

And that sensational crime coverage, in turn, has kept many Californians in the dark about just how much safer their streets are today than they were 10, 20 or 30 years ago.

Crime rates peaked in California and much of the nation in the 1980s and early 1990s, and have generally been falling ever since. That’s true for violent crime and property crimes.

Between 1991 and 2011, the crime rate dropped by 56 percent, according to numbers from the state’s nonpartisan legislative analyst. The violent crime rate peaked in 1992 and has dropped 63 percent since then. The property crime rate has been falling even longer, since 1980.

In 2011, California’s crime rate was lower than the US average and the third lowest among the ten most populous states. There were about a million fewer crimes reported in California in 2011 than 20 years ago, even as the state’s population has increased by 7 million people.

That’s a huge success story, although its cause remains the subject of much debate in criminal justice circles. Some experts think the decline is largely the result of fewer young men in their prime, crime-committing years. Others think tougher criminal sentencing and more aggressive policing contributed.

Now, however, a recent uptick in crime in some jurisdictions is providing fodder for critics of Gov. Jerry Brown’s initiative to shift thousands of state prison inmates to local custody. Preliminary data for the first six months of 2012 show that violent crime in California’s major cities climbed by 4 percent while property crime surged by 9 percent.

It’s far too early to say whether the policy change Brown pushed is responsible for this spike in crime. Similar increases occurred in several other western states that did not adopt criminal justice reforms. But the reforms could be at risk if voters begin to perceive that the change is undermining public safety.

Brown proposed the shift as a response to federal court orders requiring the state to reduce overcrowding in its prisons. Since it costs less to house an inmate in a local jail than a state prison, the governor proposed transferring responsibility for thousands of low-risk offenders from the state to the counties, along with the money to pay for their incarceration.

The inmates shifted were those whose crimes are defined as non-violent and non-serious, and not sex offenses. Inmates who violate the conditions of their parole but aren’t charged with a new crime are also sent to county jails now, rather than state prison.

The shift began gradually with newly convicted felons and newly released parolees in the fall of 2011, and the results have been dramatic.

In 2010, the last full year before the policy change, 58,700 people were sentenced to state prison. In the first year after the changes pushed by Brown, just 33,900 people entered prison.

The mix has also changed. In the year before responsibilities for inmates were realigned, 58 percent of admissions to state prison were for property and drug crimes. In the first year under the new policy, just 37 percent of new inmates were sent to prison for those non-violent offenses. Far more of the admissions were for violent crimes. Overall, the prison population is expected to decline by 38,000 between 2011 and 2013.

But as state prison numbers decline, the counties are now responsible for thousands of non-violent offenders and ex-convicts who violate the conditions of their parole.

It’s important to recognize that most of these inmates have always served relatively short terms in prison. They went in, came out and, for the most part, resumed their lives of crime on the streets. Of more than 100,000 inmates released in the 2006-07 fiscal year, for example, 65 percent returned to prison within three years – for either violating the conditions of their parole or committing a new crime.

So when a parolee under county supervision commits a crime, it’s not necessarily fair to blame the new system. Odds are good that the same ex-con would have re-offended under the old system, too. It will be several years before enough data is gathered to determine if more or fewer felons are re-offending under county supervision.

The real question is whether the counties or the state are better suited to work with the relatively small percentage of convicts who might be able to turn their lives around as they re-enter society.

There is reason to think that keeping low-level inmates closer to home will make them more likely to take advantage of community supervision, drug and alcohol treatment and mental health counseling, all of which can improve outcomes. It’s also easier to link soon-to-be released inmates to housing and job prospects when they are in county custody rather than a distant prison.

But the counties will need sufficient resources, and space, to house the new inmates and provide the programs to help convicts rehabilitate themselves. The voters took a step in that direction in November by locking down the funding shift that Brown and the Legislature enacted in 2011 along with the prison reforms. That money now won’t be at risk in some future state budget crisis.

State lawmakers also have allocated $500 million in bond money for construction of new local jails. That’s a lot of money, but just a fraction of the $4 billion the state expects to save by not having to build new prisons.

Before this historic shift, California was spending more and more money on a prison system that was good at warehousing inmates but not very good at preventing them from committing new crimes once they were released.

The warehousing is the easy part. Counties ought to be able to handle that, and do so more cheaply than the state. The tough part is turning lives around. And the counties will need a lot more time, and public understanding, before we know whether they are doing that job any better than the state prisons.

But one thing we already know: it would be hard to do worse.

Daniel Weintraub has covered California public policy for 25 years. He is editor of the California Health Report at

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