“Recidivism” is a 10-cent word for a multibillion-dollar problem. Briefly, it means criminals getting out of prison, committing another crime, then going back to a cell.
Crime-and-punishment policy makers have been trying for years to figure a way to reduce recidivism rates, to close or at least slow the revolving door through which released inmates walk, only to commit a new crime and be escorted right back to prison.
Gov. Jerry Brown came up with a strategy that he said would reduce California’s ridiculously high recidivism rate: realign the state prison system, sending low-level offenders to county jails, where — in the governor’s publicly stated opinion at least — those inmates stood a better chance of being rehabilitated.
We have been skeptical, and critical, of the governor’s realignment plan from the start. It seemed to us that, while reducing recidivism rates was the stated reason for sloughing state inmates off to county jails, the real reason was federal government watchdogs hovering over California’s mismanaged prison system, forcing the governor and Legislature to do something, anything.
Now, the facade of reducing recidivism rates seems to have been removed. A study conducted for the Public Policy Institute of California tells a different story about the overall effects of realignment.
There has been a slight decrease in the number of re-arrests of released inmates in the first year of freedom, but the proportion of recently released inmates arrested multiple times has increased by 7 percent.
No one can say for certain what those statistics mean, although it seems reasonably evident state inmates sent to county jails are being released and committing multiple crimes.
And the reason that’s happening also seems fairly obvious — the prison realignment scheme was launched at a time when most of California’s county jails were bursting at the seams, overcrowded with local criminals sent to local jails because of rigidly unrelenting get-tough-on-crime and sentencing laws.
It seems so obvious to us, because Santa Barbara County’s main jail has been chronically and hopelessly overcrowded for years. In fact, on multiple occasions, the courts have ordered early release for the least offensive of the offenders.
The local jail overcrowding situation is among the main reasons why the state was so willing to pony up the millions of tax dollars to help finance construction of the North County Jail.
All of which makes the prison realignment plan just another political ploy, with policy makers at the state government level scrambling to compensate for their mismanagement and loss of control of the California prison system, and hoping realignment would get the federal government off their backs.
We aren’t big fans of federal intervention in state government, but in California’s case, it was absolutely necessary. The situation in California’s state prisons before the feds stepped in was a textbook demonstration of cruel and unusual punishment, something the U.S. Constitution frowns upon.
Prisons shouldn’t be country clubs, but neither should they be warehouses of chaos, mayhem and disorder. As much as law-abiding citizens may want convicts to suffer, that’s not the way our justice system was designed to work.
So, if studies indicate realignment’s claim of “reduced recidivism” isn’t working, what’s the next step?
We will toss that hot potato back to the governor and Legislature, who need to get serious about reforming the prison system, and provide more resources for programs to actually rehabilitate inmates, rather than shuttling them to overcrowded county jails — which apparently results in a high percentage of the recently released to commit more crimes.