An early review of California's grand experiment with reducing prison population to levels not seen for 20 years suggests policymakers and law enforcement should proceed, but with tweaks and caution.
Gov. Jerry Brown is trying to meet federal court orders that he vastly improve prison conditions. Under his criminal justice realignment plan approved by the Legislature in 2011, Brown has reduced the number of state inmates by giving counties more responsibility for lower-level inmates.
As a result of realignment, there are roughly 27,000 fewer inmates today than there were two years ago. The nose count in county jails has increased, but only by 9,000. That means that 18,000 offenders who in past years would have been behind bars are on the streets.
Evidently, not all of them are behaving themselves.
A Public Policy Institute of California report, "Public safety realignment and crime rates in California," says that murder, rape and most other violent crimes have ticked up, but only slightly. The rise cannot be attributed to realignment. Evidence regarding robbery is mixed.
But the report says there is "convincing and robust evidence" that realignment is related to rises in property crime. Burglary, larceny and especially auto theft are up since realignment.
State Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, has jumped on the new report to slam Brown and Democratic lawmakers for "serious flaws in their prison reduction plan." Nielsen should take a deep breath.
The report and other sources note that crime is up nationally, but also that crime rates in California and the rest of the country are below historic highs. California crime rates have fallen to 1960s levels.
California is not in a realignment-induced crime wave. But Brown and other sensible policymakers should ask themselves whether property-crime increases portend rises in other crimes.
California should not return to the prison construction boom days of the 1980s and 1990s, and the state definitely should not start stacking inmates in triple bunks in prison gyms, as it did only a few years ago.
As the PPIC report says, incarceration for lower-level criminals is not the solution. Rather than spending money warehousing felons, the state and local governments would be far better off paying to place more cops on the street. No doubt, more programs for mentally ill offenders and to reduce recidivism would help, too.
PPIC's conclusion that expanding incarceration is not the wisest solution comes as the Board of State and Community Corrections is about to dole out $500 million in jail construction funds for counties that consider a "range of alternatives," not just new jail beds.
With $1.3 billion in county requests, the board's preliminary recommendations favor upgrading local jails to include program space, leaving out expansion-only proposals. The board is supposed to make final decisions at its Jan. 16 meeting.
No program and no amount of police presence will eradicate crime. But for realignment to be declared a success, there must be more cost-effective ways of maintaining and ultimately reducing historically low crime rates in California.