Commentary

10/23/2012 by Ed Coghlan

The realignment story in California is still being written

California's Realignment of public safety turned "one year old" on October 1st. This historic program is what the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation calls on its website "the cornerstone of California's solution to reduce overcrowding, cost and recidivism" in the state's correction system.

So how's it working?

"The hard truth is, despite what you hear from many people on both sides of the argument, we just don't know yet," Sharon Aungst, director of California Forward's Partnership for Community Excellence told the Association for Criminal Justice Research in California.

The Partnership for Community Excellence was created by California Forward to support California counties in implementing realignment, which is designed to help reduce the number of inmates in the state's 33 prisons and allow non-violent, non-serious and non sex offenders to serve their sentences in county jails instead of state prisons.

Aungst, "most decided early on whether realignment was good or bad policy, and then spent the last year trying to prove themselves right." 

The data indicate that we are nowhere near knowing the answer.

Governor Brown has long believed that something needed to be done.

"For too long, the state's prison system has been a revolving door for lower-level offenders and parole violators who are released within months--often before they are even transferred out of a reception center. Cycling those offenders through state prisons wastes money, aggravates the crowded conditions, thwarts rehabilitation and impeded local law enforcement supervision," Brown said last year.

It is this confusion that California Forward is trying to address by helping counties with implementation and communicating counties' experiences so that other counties can learn from the process.  

"The skepticism is understandable because people are worried about public safety," said Aungst. "But it gives people an opportunity to mislabel realignment as an early release policy or to say that crime rates are increasing due to realignment. Those assertions are simply not true."

What is true is that there is no one right way to implement realignment.

Aungst referred to California Forward's recent Pretrial Report it issued last month.

"We reviewed the work in five counties where realignment is working. They were all designed differently but all showed improvement in performance and had good outcomes," Aungst said. "It tells us that there is more than one way for realignment to work."

A spokesman for the California State Sheriff's Association is another who says it's simply too early to make a judgment. .

"If anybody tells you...this is going to be a dismal failure or a smashing success is premature in their judgment," said Nick Warner of the CSSA.

Aungst, who quoted Warner in her speech to the Association for Criminal Justice Research, told the group that California Forward will continue to work hard to fill its role as an information hub and to act as a connector of local and state leaders who want realignment to work.

It has to work. The country, and particularly the state of California wants to protect public safety but also reduce the hundreds of millions of dollars we spend on incarcerating non-violent offenders only to see two-thirds of offenders return to prison. Realignment is also about reducing these dismal recidivism rates

"Realignment is designed to address these areas in a smarter way. We are pleased to be able to help that process," concluded Aungst.

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