In 2011, California embarked on one of the biggest and most controversial criminal justice experiments in history. Following the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Plata, the state passed the Public Safety Realignment Act -- in legislative shorthand AB 109 -- which required that California's 58 counties develop policies that best fit their local needs in anticipation of the transfer of 33,000 inmates from state prisons to county supervision. Their options included adding jail beds, putting the transferees on probation or under electronic monitoring, or providing drug/alcohol rehabilitation services.
The current issue of The Annals of the American Academy of Political & Social Science, guest-edited by University of California, Irvine professors Charis Kubrin and Carroll Seron, offers the first systematic, scientific analysis of the Public Safety Realignment Act and answers the urgent question: Is California becoming more dangerous as prisons downsize?
In fact, the UCI and other researchers behind the journal's articles found very little evidence of crime increasing as a result of the new policy. "We've seen no appreciable uptick in assaults, rapes or murders that can be connected to the prisoners who were released under realignment," said Kubrin, professor of criminology, law & society at UCI. "This is not surprising, of course, because these offenders were eligible for release precisely because of the nonviolent nature of their crimes."
Findings did show a very small rise in property crimes, especially auto theft. But Seron, professor of criminology, law & society and interim dean of UCI's School of Social Ecology, noted, "One must weigh the cost of a slight increase in property crimes against the cost of incarceration." One year served in prison as a result of realignment prevents 1.2 auto thefts per year and saves $11,783 in crime-related costs, as reported in the journal. While researchers recognize that this may not be negligible for the victim, keeping someone behind bars for a year costs California taxpayers $51,889, according to the publication -- and this figure does not include the economic and social hardships that imprisonment can create for inmates' children and families.
Researchers also found that counties that invested their state-provided realignment dollars in offender rehab programs experienced less recidivism than counties that used these resources for reincarceration or enhanced law enforcement. Specifically, the rearrest rate under realignment was 3.7 percentage points greater for offenders released to enforcement-focused counties, such as San Bernardino, than for those released to reentry-focused counties, such as Alameda.
The research published in The Annals of the American Academy of Political & Social Science resulted from an October 2014 conference at UCI sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the UC Office of the President. Kubrin and Seron assembled scholars with diverse research and intellectual interests to produce the first and most comprehensive assessment of realignment to date. While the state did not set aside resources to evaluate realignment, faculty at UCI and other UC campuses, including Berkeley and Davis, filled this policy void.
This issue of the journal can be accessed at: http://ann.sagepub.com/content/664/1.toc
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