RIVERSIDE PRESS-ENTERPRISE: California getting smarter on crime

By Sal Rodriquez, columnist

October 21, 2015

California has made notable prison reforms since the 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Plata that the persistent overcrowding in California prisons amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. But much more work remains to be done.

In the immediate aftermath of the court’s order to reduce the prison population, California lawmakers scrambled to pass Assembly Bill 109, commonly known as realignment, shifting responsibility for non-violent, non-sexual, non-serious offenders from the state to the county level.

Over the four years since, the state prison population has declined to 111,000 from over 150,000. Much of the decline was aided by voter approval of reforms to three-strikes laws with Proposition 36 in 2012; and the reclassification of numerous low-level, non-violent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors with Proposition 47 in 2014.

With the prison population now substantially lower, the state has made significant progress in meeting the court’s order, which was predicated on the idea that a reduced prison population would enable officials to provide more appropriate mental health and medical services, both of which remain under federal court monitoring.

In July, the federal court-appointed receiver returned control of medical services at Folsom State Prison back to the state. Prisons at Blythe, Norco and Soledad also have received positive reviews by the state inspector general on medical services, while care at California Correctional Center in Susanville was deemed inadequate in August.

Beyond prison issues, realignment and the subsequent voter-driven criminal justice reforms have made a lot of people uneasy. After all, such sweeping changes were mostly forced on the state, as legislators before and since AB109’s passage have done as little as possible on criminal justice issues.

One of the enduring sources of anxiety has been whether or not the changes would lead to upticks in crime. But crime statistics from the Office of the Attorney General indicate crime across the board has been on the decline since 2011.

A notable exception has been an increase in auto thefts. A September 2015 report by the Public Policy Institute of California suggests the “auto theft rate is about 17 percent higher than it would have been without realignment.” While this is a problem, PPIC argues the answer isn’t necessarily a return to incarceration as a crime fighting tool, but rather the state would “benefit from alternative crime prevention strategies.”

PPIC specifically suggests a greater emphasis on things like “policing, cognitive behavioral therapy, early childhood programs and targeted interventions for high-risk youth.” In the short- and long-term, those would probably be a better use of resources than building more prisons.

One bill moving in that direction is Senate Bill 621 by state Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys. Signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on October 3, the bill clarifies that local governments may apply for funds through the state’s Mentally Ill Offender Crime Reduction Grant program for use in diversion programs for individuals diagnosed with mental health problems.

“Too many people with mental health needs are taken to jail as a first option,” said Sen. Hertzberg in a statement upon news of the governor’s approval. “This will save tax dollars and help those in need become more self-sufficient and stay out of jail.”

At the very least, the criminal justice reforms of the past four years have forced lawmakers to seriously examine alternatives to incarceration, reentry programs and rehabilitation efforts as legitimate approaches to crime prevention and reduction.

Organizations like Californians for Safety and Justice have pointed to efforts like Seattle, Washington’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which diverts low-level offenders to case managers to deal with the root causes of their problems. Dealing with the challenges of poor people who often can be chronically homeless, addicted to drugs and involved in prostitution, it turns out, reduces the likelihood of recurring criminal activity. The program, launched in 2011, has been found to more than halve recidivism.

These ideas are in a better position to be implemented and experimented with now than a decade ago, the peak of prison overcrowding and, incidentally, a time of much higher crime. As the state gets smarter about crime and incarceration, we can look forward to less crime and perhaps even leaner budgets.

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