TIMM HERDT: Let's wait for the evidence on Calif. prison realignment

June 13, 2013 

When former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado unofficially kicked off his campaign for governor by announcing the launch of a tough-on-crime ballot initiative, he had by his side Nina Salarno-Ashford, a member of the executive board for the group Crime Victims United.

That group was founded by the mother of a murder victim, in close association with the state prison guards' union.

It has become an important voice in debates about crime-and-punishment issues in California because of the powerful empathy everyone feels for the suffering of those who have lost a loved one to violence.

Its position, on issues from the Three Strikes law to sentencing reform, has been consistent support for policies that lock criminals in prison for as long as possible.

But is that how crime victims uniformly feel? Apparently not, judging from the results of a poll released last week that was commissioned by an advocacy group called Californians for Safety and Justice.

The polling firm David Binder Research randomly called 2,600 Californians to find 500 who said they had been victims of crime in the last five years.

Two out of three said they had been the victims of multiple crimes, and the same percentage said they experienced significant stress and anxiety that affected their work and social relationships.

But their views on criminal justice, Binder says, are "at odds with preconceived notions."

When asked whether California should "focus more on sending people to jail and prison or more on providing supervised probation and rehabilitation programs," they chose rehabilitation by a ratio of more than 2-to-1.

A majority of these crime victims said they believe California "sends too many people to prison" and that time spent in prison often results in criminals learning how to become better criminals.

The findings of the poll are noteworthy as policymakers evaluate the effects of the 2011 public safety realignment program that shifted about 30,000 low-level offenders from state prisons to county jails.

The shift was motivated in large part by the imperative to meet a U.S. Supreme Court order that California dramatically decrease its prison population. But it was also driven by the desire to spend money on corrections more efficiently and by the hope that locally based probation services would be more likely than the state parole system to provide effective rehabilitation.

Public safety realignment is the focus of Maldonado's ire. He calls the program "early release," and asserts that its architect, Gov. Jerry Brown, "has deceived the public into believing that they are safer under his public safety experiment."

The public at large seems to buy into both sides of the argument. A USC Dornsife College/Los Angeles Times poll released last weekend showed that 74% of Californians support the idea behind realignment — but that a majority would oppose it if it meant an increase in crime.

It is an issue too often debated by anecdote, whether it's Crime Victims United founder Harriet Salarno talking about the 1979 murder of her daughter, or Californians for Safety and Justice supporter Dionne Wilson talking about the 2005 murder of her police-officer husband. Each has a powerful story to tell; each comes to a different conclusion about criminal justice policies.

As for Maldonado, he botched his initial attempt at argument-by-anecdote by invoking the case of an ex-con who had been rearrested for a new offense. The truth was, the man in question had been released from prison long before realignment.

Just as these crime-and-punishment policies shouldn't be determined by anecdote, neither should they be decided by polls — not a poll of victims, not a poll of Californians at large.

The public safety realignment program must be given a chance to unfold, to be assessed and analyzed, and ultimately to be maintained, adjusted or scrapped based on actual evidence.


Timm Herdt is chief of the Ventura County Star state bureau. His political blog "95 percent accurate*" is at venturacountystar.com.

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