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October 22, 2012

"Effects of change in California criminal justice system difficult to discern"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new article appearing in the Sacremento Bee.  Here are excerpts:

Critics of a year-old law shifting responsibility for thousands of convicted felons to the counties have seized on the brutal beating of a San Joaquin County woman -- allegedly by a man released from jail just days before the attack -- as evidence that the law is eroding public safety.   But criminal justice experts say that understanding the law's effects will take more time and more information than a few headline-grabbing cases can provide.

Parolee Raoul Leyva allegedly beat Brandy Marie Arreola, then 20, into a coma in April. Shortly before the attack, Leyva had been sentenced to jail for 100 days for violating the conditions of his parole. 

He was released after two days because of overcrowding in the jail.  Before the passage last year of the criminal justice reform law -- AB109 -- he would have been subject to prison time, rather than jail, for the parole violation.  Critics of prison realignment, as AB109 is commonly known, say crime rates are surging because fewer people such as Leyva are going to prison, and some may be getting out of jail early because of overcrowding.

Leyva's last prison term was for motor vehicle theft, a nonviolent offense.  Crimes classified as nonviolent are now met with jail or community supervision instead of prison. Violations of parole by nonviolent offenders also mean jail time rather than prison for the offender.

The law's enactment followed a court order to reduce the state's prison population.  The prisons were at double their capacity at the time of the order.  Since then, the prison population has dropped by more than 26,000 inmates.

"It's diminishing public safety," said Lynne Brown, director of Advocates for Public Safety, a group that represents law enforcement officers who want to repeal AB109.   Republican legislators agree, and they have called for a special session of the Legislature to change or kill the law.  They say that crime has increased in Sacramento, Stockton, Oakland and Los Angeles, according to preliminary numbers from police departments.

But police data actually show a mixed picture.  In Sacramento, Part I crimes, those that are reported to the FBI and eventually become the uniform crime rate for a city, are up by 8.1 percent this year compared with the same period in 2011. Homicides, however, decreased by 18.5 percent, according to Sacramento Police Department crime data.

Violent crime is currently down in Los Angeles by 7 percent and property crime is the same year-to-date.  In Oakland, Part I crimes have increased by 20 percent, according to the Oakland Police Department.  Some increases -- like those for rape (up 21 percent) and robbery (up 20 percent) -- are striking.  Part II crimes -- including minor assault, drug possession, vandalism and fraud – have decreased by 10 percent....

But determining the effect of a single policy on crime rates is difficult, said Joan Petersilia, professor of law at Stanford University and co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. "That is one of the hardest questions to answer in crime," Petersilia said. Factors that influence crime rates range from the economy and the unemployment rate to family life, Petersilia said.

Shrinking police forces in cities struggling with tight budgets might also have an effect, noted Barry Krisberg, director of Research and Policy at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at UC Berkeley....

Counties have responded to the law in different ways, from sending people back into the community with ankle bracelets to putting people who once would have gone to prison in jail.  Realignment in Los Angeles, which is increasing its jail population, is different from realignment in San Francisco, where the focus is on rehabilitation and reducing the jail population.  "Realignment isn't one thing," Krisberg said.  "It's 58 things."

The law did not include any method for assessing the impact of the policy change. Counties that have accepted technical assistance from the state are required to report on their realigned population, but there are no set standards for what specific data counties must report.

Researchers, including Petersilia, are working on studies funded by foundations. "The state is not collecting data on this," Krisberg said.  "I think it is scandalous."  Nuanced analysis is essential to understanding the effects of realignment, Petersilia said.  "We do a great disservice when we ask if it is working and only look at one measure."

October 22, 2012 at 07:02 PM | Permalink

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