Something is happening, quietly, in Contra Costa County that should get the attention of the entire state. If it did, we could be on the road to much better, more cost-effective policies for keeping our communities safe.
Since October 2011, California counties have faced a new responsibility for their criminal justice populations. In an effort to reduce overcrowding in state prisons, the governor and Legislature enacted Public Safety Realignment, which shifted management of - and money for - people convicted of certain nonserious, nonviolent felonies from the state prison system to the jails and probation departments in counties where those individuals are from.
Much has been said about the projected impact of realignment, and a spotlight has been on the challenges that some counties are facing. Specifically, there's a concern that counties that use their jails as the primary corrections tool will encounter the overcrowding that leads to budget problems and human-rights lawsuits. At least four counties are already grappling with such litigation.
These developments are worthy of attention, but so too are the examples of where - and how - some counties are succeeding with their new responsibilities and the funding that came with it. I recently completed an analysis of Contra Costa County that produced some surprising numbers. I believe what the county is doing can provide a blueprint for other counties on how to reduce their incarceration numbers, costs as well as recidivism (e.g., repeat offenses or violation of one's probation terms).
First, some context on Contra Costa County, since it's important to acknowledge that not all counties are the same: Differences in demographics, crime rates, law enforcement numbers and practices, and county budgets all can affect policies and outcomes. Contra Costa is home to 1 million residents, making it the state's ninth-largest county. It includes Richmond, a city long troubled by crime, and several other cities making up the northern part of San Francisco's East Bay. In recent years, the county's crime and arrest rates have been similar to the state's averages.
But its corrections policies since realignment are another story. In Contra Costa County, individuals are incarcerated and placed on probation and parole at a rate that is one-half the rest of the state of California. To put this in perspective, if Contra Costa's approach was applied throughout the rest of state, California's prison population could shrink by 50 percent.
One of the key reasons for these low rates of incarceration is Contra Costa's use of probation, where trained officers supervise people during their term and ensure they meet any court-ordered requirements - drug/alcohol treatment, mental health or behavioral counseling, victim restitution, etc. Contra Costa has been able to send fewer people to state prison because prosecutors, public defenders and the courts have faith that probation is more effective than incarceration.
Second, unlike other jurisdictions, Contra Costa also issues shorter probation terms. For example, neighboring Alameda County typically gives a five-year probation term for individuals convicted of a felony crime. In Contra Costa, most probation terms are within the 24- to 36-month range, matching a growing body of evidence that longer probation and prison terms may not be necessary (for public safety gains) and actually may have negative effects. In my study, I found that longer probation sentences were associated with higher recidivism rates. This occurs because longer periods of probation supervision can disrupt people's lives, as they strive to maintain stable employment and family relations.
Finally, Contra Costa County also has the state's highest rate of split sentences - when a judge divides a sentence between a jail term and supervised probation. The county splits nine out of 10 sentences - far higher than the 28 percent state average - which has effectively neutralized the impact of realignment on its jail population.
Saving jail space and money is important, but the key question is whether such practices actually improve safety. In analyzing people on felony probation in Contra Costa over a three-year period, I found the recidivism rate to be 20 percent - far lower than the rates of 60 percent or higher found statewide, in other studies. The latest numbers from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation show that 61 percent of state prisoners released returned within three years.
Considering these safety gains, and the fact that probation can cost $100 less per day per person than county jail, it's important for local and state leaders to re-examine how we hold nonviolent people accountable - and the terms of their probation.
There are also important lessons from Contra Costa's results: close coordination among key criminal justice agencies, a public defender's office that provides effective representation to defendants at all court proceedings, a strong probation department respected for providing quality supervision, and contracts with medical, mental health and support treatment services to augment probation supervision.
Some other counties have innovative, effective strategies like this in place. But the road map that they and Contra Costa offer for smarter, less expensive justice policies is too often obscured by the politics of crime and punishment.
If we only listen to the loudest critics of Public Safety Realignment, we'll fail to hear the quiet success stories taking place in Contra Costa and elsewhere that actually can make this law a public safety success for California.
James Austin, president of the JFA Institute, advises California and other states on corrections planning. He is a former executive with the Institute of Crime, Justice and Corrections, and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.