Our View: Enough with realignment scare tactics

April 16, 2013 

Be afraid, be very afraid. State Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, and the Assembly Republican Caucus want you to believe that any negative changes in crime patterns are because of Gov. Jerry Brown's public safety realignment.

They refer to a "mass influx of criminals" into communities. They send out daily emails with titles such as "Another AB 109er attacks." Nielsen refers to "the carnage that's occurring on our streets."

Before you panic, remember that California's crime rates have declined dramatically from peaks in the 1980s and 1990s. Even with an uptick in property crime rates that began several months before California launched realignment, rates are at 1960s levels. Violent crime rates are at 1970s levels.

A one-year uptick in crime is a reason for counties to make adjustments, not to generate uproar and premature calls to reverse policy.

Lawmakers should give counties time to make the realignment transition -- to get the right policies, partnerships and professionals in place to improve on California's terrible recidivism rate.

The fact is, state prisons and state parole were doing an appalling job with lower-level offenders. What's needed is for counties to embrace responsibility for dealing with those people who live and commit crimes in their communities.

Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson is one who is doing that. He has gone from being a vocal critic of realignment to a cautious supporter.

"Despite immense challenges with realignment, with effective partnerships and teamwork at the local level, we are committed and will make it work," he told The Sacramento Bee's editorial board.

Christianson had been early to blame an uptick in crime to realignment, but now he acknowledges it is "too soon to tell." With counties phasing in new approaches to reducing recidivism, he says, "It will be two to three years before we have real definitive data."

Assembly Bill 109 changed where people convicted of nonserious, nonviolent and nonsexual crimes ("non-non-nons") serve their time. Rather than being sentenced to state prison, since October 2011 they have served their time with the county. People convicted of serious, violent or sexual crimes go to state prisons; none has been released because of realignment.

In California, every person who finishes a state prison sentence is supervised in the community, usually for three years. Under AB 109, non-non-nons are supervised under county probation rather than state parole. When you hear from the alarmists that a person who finished their state prison term who was being supervised under county probation committed a serious crime, you should ask: Would that crime have been prevented if the person had been under state parole?

The important question is: What went wrong with county supervision that should be fixed? Christianson is quick to acknowledge that realignment certainly is "not all roses." It has brought a tougher population to county jail facilities. Stanislaus County has won grants to build facilities that include mental health units and programming space for inmate education and training.

Christianson earlier had spurned new approaches for handling unsentenced people awaiting trial, but now he realizes they are filling jail space needed for more serious offenders. He is working with the Public Policy Institute on a pretrial program to determine who needs to be in jail before trial.

Stanislaus County, similar to others, struggles with how to prevent parolees from violating technical rules and how to sanction them when they do. Clearly, that remains an area where California can learn from other states.

In the end, realignment is about doing things differently. If particular counties aren't doing a better job of supervising offenders than the state did, county supervisors and the public should be working with the sheriff and probation chief to turn things around -- not crying for the governor and Legislature to repeal realignment.

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