The Department of Corrections closed its parole office in Marysville two years ago. No big event. The parole office in Placerville permanently shut, too. Also, no big event. However, both shutdowns shifted many of their parolees to Auburn’s parole/probation office, which means more ex-cons resided in neighboring Placer County than before AB 109 or “realignment” was signed into law in 2011.
It also meant many Placer County ex-cons were not visiting neighboring Nevada County just to sightsee.
Realignment changed things. Realignment shifted virtually all the responsibility for monitoring, tracking, and imprisoning lower-level felons previously bound for state prison to county jails and probation. Realignment transferred responsibility for post-release supervision of state inmates to California’s counties.
A criminal’s life can be a vicious circle. Released, ex-cons find out most employers won’t hire them due to their criminal backgrounds, among other reasons. The need to survive and/or thrive usually plunges an unemployable ex-con back into criminal activity — becoming involved with selling illegal drugs, for example. If ex-cons deal drugs, then they eventually are busted. Once arrested they go back to jail. They’re released and so the cycle repeats itself. The revolving door is chiefly made possible by realignment.
The sad truth is low-level released criminals have increasingly been committing property crimes (robbery and auto theft). According to a December study, the Public Policy Institute of California found that property crimes were 7 to 12 percent higher in 2012 because an estimated 18,000 convicted criminals who would have otherwise been behind bars were free in this state. And with a 14.8 percent increase between 2011 and 2012, motor vehicle thefts rose the sharpest.
Crime remains a serious problem calling for effective remedies from those who make policy. The state legislature remains blameworthy for passing AB 109. And the well-intentioned U.S. Supreme Court decided that dismal conditions in California’s prisons should be ameliorated. No small order. No small task. So one can thank the court, the state legislature and the prison system for the implementation of their assault on citizens’ safety, security and sense of peace of mind. The public hasn’t been considered much throughout the realignment experiment.
Granted, if the majority of parolees could lead a law-abiding, socially constructive existence outside prison walls, many citizens would then wholeheartedly embrace the policy of realignment. But most ex-cons can’t “keep their noses clean.” Thus, realignment neither reduces high recidivism nor decreases the crime rate. What realignment does is contribute to California having the highest recidivism rate in the U.S. In fact, within three years, seven out of 10 California ex-cons return to jail or prison, which contributes to even more overcrowding.
Realignment was a legislative sleight of hand to disguise the fact that California has been overwhelmed with the war on crime and that ineffectual politicians can’t do much to mitigate the state’s crime epidemic. Also, there is little evidence to support the proposition that California’s criminal justice system can dramatically reduce crime by meting out light sentences, early parole and probated/suspended sentences.
Examining the negative governmental aspects of AB 109, realignment enlarged the criminal justice system, strapped counties in a financial bind to fund the state-mandated program and demonstrated that realignment had other shortcomings as well. For example, with AB 109’s passage, there was not only no outside evaluation funded but also no mandate for any statewide data collection, cost benefit analysis or outcome report back to the legislature. Counties were largely left high and dry due to a poorly drafted bill.
Most of California’s county jails have become overcrowded as a result of realignment with no viable safety valve to relieve their overpopulation. Currently, state prisoners constitute two-thirds of California’s county jail population. Moreover, most county jails suffered because they were and are simply ill-equipped to handle large prison populations for extended periods of time. Nevertheless, it’s a sign of dire times when new prisons can’t be built fast enough to keep up with the overwhelming flood of new prison-bound criminals.
Punishing lawbreakers is the point of jails. Granting more leniency and freedom to incorrigible criminals is neither true prison reform nor prudent policy. Something else should’ve been tried to alleviate prison overcrowding without jeopardizing public safety. Realignment should be scrapped, a better alternative found and expeditiously implemented.
To close, my murdered grandfather used to have a saying: “You can’t straighten out a crooked branch.” He meant that once someone grows into being crooked, they cannot change or be straightened out. Maybe so, but California’s criminal justice system can change and should.
David Briceno lives in Grass Valley.