California, which had led the nation in cracking down on crime in the 1980s and 1990s by locking up tens of thousands of felons, has dramatically reversed course in the last half-decade, to wit:
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Responding to pressure from federal courts to reduce prison overcrowding, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature enacted “realignment,” which diverted low-level felons into local jails and probation, thus dropping prison populations by about one-third via attrition;
Proposition 47, passed by voters in 2014, reclassified many lower-level felonies as misdemeanors, thus keeping offenders out of state prison, and allowed inmates who committed the downgraded crimes to apply for release;
Proposition 57, sponsored by Brown and passed by voters last year, makes it easier for felons deemed to have committed non-violent crimes – although there’s a continuing dispute over the definitions of those crimes – to obtain parole.
These major changes have not been without controversy. Many law enforcement officials contend that they mean more criminals walking the streets and committing more crimes. Those on both sides of the debate cite crime statistics, but even when they agree on what data to use, the numbers vary widely from community to community and it’s virtually impossible to show cause-and-effect relationships.
Two new reports demonstrate the lack of clarity.
The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice looked at crime in Los Angeles County – which has a quarter of the state’s population and generates a third of those prosecuted for crimes – during what it calls “the justice reform era.”
In the state as a whole, crimes per 100,000 population dropped 5 percent between 2010 and 2016, the study found, but Los Angeles Country saw a 5 percent increase and the City of Los Angeles a 9 percent increase, led by a 60 percent jump in assaults and 27 percent increase in all forms of violent crime.
This week, the Public Policy Institute of California published a study of realignment, finding that low-level felons who were released from prison into local supervision were somewhat more likely to commit new crimes than similar parolees prior to realignment.
The more startling bit of data, however, is that their “recidivism” rate was 71.9 percent, which indicates that the “correction” part of the penal system isn’t working very well.
These reports and others are grist for the Capitol’s political mill as it grinds on the next big criminal justice issue: bail reform.
A coalition of penal reform organizations is backing legislation by Sen. Bob Hertzberg, a Van Nuys Democrat, aimed at reducing the number of those facing criminal charges who are locked up because they can’t post bail.
“California’s current money bail system comes at great cost not only to the detained individual and his or her family but also to California communities,” Hertzberg argues. “When wealth and charges alone determine whether or not someone will be released pending trial, community safety suffers.”
Hertzberg’s Senate Bill 10 would curb judges’ power, eliminate local bail schedules and create “pretrial services agencies” to evaluate arrestees on an individual basis. It passed the Senate on a mostly party-line vote but stalled in the Assembly due to opposition from bail bond agents, many law enforcement groups and judges.
As with the crime issue itself, the contending factions throw out conflicting data on how many accused are being held in local jails. Reform advocates say they may be as high as two-thirds of jail populations, while opponents say it’s more like a quarter.
It will be a front-burner issue when the Legislature returns to the Capitol in January.