As lawmakers stepped up pressure to modify California’s historic prison realignment – most recently at a news conference Tuesday featuring a crime victim in a wheelchair – Gov. Jerry Brown is taking notice.
The Democratic governor traveled to Palo Alto this month to confer with researchers about the impact of the law, which shifts responsibility for certain low-level offenders from the state prison and parole system to the counties.
In a private meeting, Brown told two Stanford Law School professors and their students that he was concerned about the way counties are managing their jail populations, among other matters, according to the professors with whom he met.
Later, Brown said he is “looking at realignment” and is considering “some ideas” about potential changes to the law.
Yet on the most basic questions about realignment, including its impact on crime rates and recidivism, neither the Stanford researchers nor Brown’s own administration can provide meaningful answers.
Nearly 18 months after the law took effect, evidence is scant.
“This is a big, historic shift, and, you know, we need to do a better job of looking at what’s happening and what’s occurring,” Jeffrey Beard, secretary of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said after a meeting in Sacramento last week.
Asked if it was even clear what would make realignment a success or a failure, Beard said, “I don’t think it is. I think that’s part of the problem, is we haven’t defined even … what is the criteria for success.”
In the absence of broad evidence about realignment’s impact on public safety, critics of the legislation highlight incidents involving offenders they say would have been incarcerated if not for realignment.
Among the lawmakers presenting a package of bills to roll back realignment Tuesday was state Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, who calls realignment “the carnage that’s occurring on our streets.”
Republican lawmakers say an increase in crime in many cities during the first six months of last year is attributable to realignment, though researchers are skeptical.
Ryken Grattet, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, said any fluctuation in the number of crimes committed over a small period of time could be attributed to a variety of factors and that “tracing it to realignment is tough.”
“It’s not just sufficient to report the statistics,” Grattet said. “You want to do the kind of analysis that would allow you to isolate the impacts.”
Robert Weisberg, one of the Stanford professors who met with Brown, said, “It is much too soon to tell. … Everything at this point is anecdotal.”
Politically, anecdotal evidence is problematic for Brown. If state budget conditions remain favorable and the economy doesn’t deteriorate, public safety may provide an opening for any candidate challenging the Democratic governor in his likely re-election bid next year.
Brown was attacked by Republican Meg Whitman in the 2010 gubernatorial campaign for his veto of death penalty legislation and controversial appointment of Rose Bird as chief justice when he was governor before, from 1975 to 1983.
“He’s got a certain vulnerability here, to be honest” said Garry South, a Democratic strategist who at times has been critical of Brown. “I hope that everything goes hunky-dory. But when you engage in a very large-scale program of turning people out of prison, whether they go out on the streets under supervised parole or whether they go into the local jails, there’s a huge risk involved.
“Ask Michael Dukakis,” South added, referring to the former Massachusetts governor pummeled in the 1988 presidential campaign by an ad featuring released killer Willie Horton.
On Tuesday, Republican lawmakers brought to their news conference a 21-year-old woman who was brutally attacked last year by a former boyfriend. The man had been arrested for violating parole and failing to register as a sex offender the month before the attack, they said, but he was out of jail due to overcrowding.
“This is beyond statistics,” Nielsen said, motioning to the woman in a wheelchair, Brandy Arreola. “There, ask Brandy if crime is going up.”
Nielsen said, “Let’s not get into statistical arguments, folks. This is real.”
The prospect for the Republican lawmakers’ legislation is dim. The first of their bills, a measure by Assemblyman Mike Morrell, R-Rancho Cucamonga, was rejected last week by the Assembly Public Safety Committee. Democrats opposing the measure, which would send sex offenders who violate parole back to state prisons instead of county jail, said the legislation runs counter to the state’s effort to reduce its prison population under a court order.
Yet it is not only Republicans challenging Brown. In response to reports of thousands of paroled, high-risk offenders disarming court-ordered GPS devices, Democratic Sen. Ted Lieu, of Torrance, proposed legislation to send offenders who remove those devices to prison.
Democratic Assembly members Susan Talamantes Eggman, of Stockton, and Ken Cooley, of Rancho Cordova, introduced legislation to let parole violators be returned to state prison for up to a year.
Eggman was motivated in part by the case of a parolee accused of raping and murdering his grandmother in Stockton. Eggman is generally supportive of realignment, but she said changes are required to give local authorities “flexibility to address violence in the streets.”
Brown acknowledged the pressure he faces from lawmakers to act on realignment, but the burden of the court order to reduce California’s prison population remains intact, as well.
“We are witnessing calls to increase the number of people in prison, and we are under pressure to reduce the number of people in prison,” Brown told reporters in San Francisco last week. “Luckily, contradiction is one of my specialties, so I feel I can deal with it.”
Brown went on to suggest that certain shortcomings of realignment may be the fault of counties – not the state.
“I can tell you this: Some counties do better than other counties, and the challenge here is that locking people up at state expense is a free good when people have a problem with criminal activity, and now we’re saying, ‘No, you have to handle criminal activity where you are.’ ”
Researchers at Stanford, the Public Policy Institute of California and other institutions are beginning to study realignment in earnest. Grattet said “we’re close” to finding and reporting significant data.
Last week, California’s Board of State and Community Corrections endorsed an effort by the Public Policy Institute of California to collect data from 10 counties to identify the most effective practices being used to prevent recidivism.
Meanwhile, Weisberg’s colleague, law professor Joan Petersilia, is meeting with lawmakers at the Capitol this week to discuss research she and her students are conducting.
At the meeting in Palo Alto, Petersilia said Brown listened to students present research on realignment for more than an hour and appeared to be interested in learning more.
Following the meeting, Petersilia said Brown told her, “Send me your best students.”
Petersilia, a former adviser on corrections issues to Brown’s predecessor, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, lamented the limitations of the research that has been done so far.
“What you’d like to know is what’s the impact on the crime rate, and what’s the impact on recidivism,” Petersilia said. “Those are two questions that we don’t know.”