By Michael Rushford
In early April 2011, California Governor Jerry Brown signed AB109, a 423-page measure called “Public Safety Realignment” into law, purportedly to help comply with a federal court order which required the largest reduction of state prison inmates in the nation’s history. The law accomplished this by increasing the “good time” credits for inmates participating in programs in prison, which reduced their required sentences in some cases by 60% and by making virtually all property and drug felonies ineligible for state prison. The law also transferred most criminals coming out of prison from more restrictive three-year statewide supervision on parole to less restrictive county supervision called Post-Release Community Supervision (PRCS), a fancy name for probation. Few in law enforcement were involved in the drafting of the Realignment law, which passed through the Legislature with only Democrat votes. Many in law enforcement and groups which represent the interests of crime victims, warned that Realignment was guaranteed to increase crime.
At the time of Realignment’s passage, crime rates were hovering at 30-year lows and most of the public was ambivalent to a change. The press coverage focused largely on the predictions of criminologists, sociologists, and sentencing reform advocates who promised that under Realignment thousands of criminals would be rehabilitated by local programs and the state’s prison population would drop dramatically saving millions in tax dollars.
After the law took effect on October 1, 2011, the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation and a number of police chiefs and sheriffs, whose major concern is the safety of the people they serve, began to regularly report on new felonies committed by criminals left free and unsupervised by Realignment.
In January 2013, the FBI preliminary report for 2012 showed across-the-board increases in crime in California after six straight years of decreases. Realignment supporters argued that the report was not conclusive because some California cities did not experience crime increases and that more time was needed for the new policies to work. By the time the final FBI report came out in July of this year, still showing significant increases, some news reporters began asking tougher questions about Realignment.
In late August the Governor had recast himself as a law and order champion. This pivot occurred after the activist panel of federal judges refused to delay the release of the final 9,600 felons from prison to meet their inmate population goal. Governor Brown announced that he would not release any more inmates because it would threaten public safety. Left unsaid was that his Realignment law already had.
In September, a poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California found growing public concern about crime, particularly among minorities. The poll also showed that the public is aware that criminals are being released early under Realignment.
On October 29 the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Manhattan Institute scholar Heather MacDonald entitled California’s Prison Litigation Nightmare. The piece documents the state’s decades-long failure to maintain its prisons and how activist judges utilized inmate lawsuits and manipulation of the legal process to orchestrate a massive release of criminals. Ms. MacDonald’s larger article in the City Journal characterized Realignment as “nightmarishly complex” and having produced “a host of wholly foreseeable and potentially disastrous burdens on county sheriffs and city police departments.”
Supporters of Realignment suffered another setback in November when one of their own, the pro-rehabilitation Stanford Criminal Justice Center released its report entitled Voices from the Field, How California Stakeholders View Public Safety Realignment. Rather than consulting other academics, this time the researchers talked to prosecutors, police chiefs and sheriffs. What the report found is that “the most sweeping correctional experiment in recent history,” is causing burdens on California counties which “cannot be overstated.” While maintaining optimism that a collaborative effort among the various agencies affected by Realignment may eventually result in reduced recidivism, the report acknowledges that most of those consulted want reform.
While the reality of the Governor’s Realignment experiment has been sinking in, its toll on law-abiding Californians continues to mount.
On October 30, officers with the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office arrested two burglars after a high-speed chase that led them through several local streets and highways. Lucas Youngblood of the Calaveras Enterprise reports that one of the suspects, 26-year-old Luke Lahman, had a lengthy criminal history and had recently been released, as required by Realignment, from state prison to light supervision on county probation (PRCS) rather than the more restrictive state parole.
On November 5, Sacramento police arrested a suspect in a violent attack on an elderly couple that left the husband dead and his wife so badly injured that she died two weeks later. Kim Minugh of the Sacramento Bee reports that 36-year-old Shauna Burton had been sentenced in July to 120 days for a domestic violence charge, a crime considered non-serious under Realignment, but was released only 53 days later and put on light-supervision under PRCS. Burton, who has an arrest record dating back to 1997, faces charges for murder, robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, and car theft.
On November 20, police in Riverside County conducted a sweep aimed at parolees released from jail early under PRCS, resulting in 34 arrests. Craig Shultz of The Press-Enterprise reports that the arrests included weapon and drug-related charges, probation violations, as well as a suspect wanted for questioning in a recent kidnapping. Of the 34 arrests, 32 were for new felony charges.
Last January, a dozen bills to reform Realignment were introduced in the Legislature. All of these bills were killed or put over until next year, except one, which was made toothless with amendments. Maybe, in the face of continued crime and violence, the Democrat majority and the Governor will find the backbone to pass serious reforms to this dangerous law during the coming election year.