Don’t Blame Realignment for Crime Spike

by Karin Drucker on February 6, 2014

Last month, my job sent me to a slew of police community meetings. San Franciscans, angry that their Audis’ windows were smashed or their iPhone was stolen at 6th and Market, demanded answers. Like clockwork, the Captains leading the meeting shook their heads and told us, “It’s all the folks out of state prison because of Realignment. People who used to be in state prison, now they’re on our streets.”

Is it true?

Public Safety Realignment legislation AB109 (aka “Realignment”), redirected responsibility for those convicted of “non-serious, non-sexual, non-violent” crimes from state to county supervision. In 2009 (and again in 2012), the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its prison population to 137 percent capacity. Governor Brown has performed political gymnastics in his attempts to evade the order, all the while spreading the idea that Realignment will cause a crime wave. In 2013 he said, “…We’ll have a list of 9,000 or 10,000 of our finer inmates that will be ready for neighborhood visitations throughout California.” In reality, counties varied wildly on how many individuals they sent to state prison prior to 2011; the influx of AB109 clients to each county now varies accordingly.

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi disagrees. He told me, “While other counties have seen steep increases in their jail population due to Realignment, San Francisco’s jail population is nearly half of what it was before Realignment.” Linda Penner, chair of the state’s Board of State and Community Corrections, agreed with Adachi and has said, “San Francisco was ahead of the game before Realignment ever began.”

San Francisco police may be passing the buck re the city’s crime trends, but the issue is complex. Total crime in San Francisco has risen more than the state average since Realignment began. Is Realignment to blame?

To answer the question, we have to examine two separate issues. First, when Realignment increased the caseload of county probation departments, did counties see a corresponding increase in the county crime rate? Second, do the individuals formerly under state supervision and now under San Francisco’s Adult Probation (SFAPD), the AB109 population, pose a greater risk to public safety than they would have before?

Crime trends: County by baffling county

In January of this year, San Francisco’s Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice released a report, California’s 58 Crime Rates: Realignment and Crime in 2012, by the excellent researchers Mike Males and Brian Goldstein. The report examines what happened to crime in “high Realignment” counties, where the number of AB109 individuals returning to the county exceeded the state average of 12.1 percent. These counties’ AB109 population averaged 15.7 percent. It likewise examined “low Realignment” counties, where the average Realigned population was 8.7 percent.

Goldstein summarized the report’s premise, saying that “If Realignment is driving the slight [statewide] increase in crime, that we would expect to see a clear trend where high Realignment counties showing a significant [crime] spike that would distinguish them from the counties that are not as affected by Realignment.” Instead, CJCJ’s report concluded, “It is hard to imagine a pattern that is more ambivalent and complicated.”

Statewide, crime increased by 6 percent between 2010 and 2012. But, Los Angeles saw crime trends decrease in all categories, skewing the figure; without it, crime increased 8 percent statewide.

In a bizarre twist, two of California’s largest counties saw high Realignment but have not seen the crime wave many pundits predicted. Los Angeles is California’s most populous county and has had the greatest number of individuals realigned to county supervision. AB109 clients now comprise 13.4 percent of its supervision population but it experienced a 2 percent decrease in total crime (and a whopping 11 percent decrease in violent crime).

Riverside County, which relied heavily on sending individuals to state prison prior to 2011, released 6,990 individuals from jail in 2012. AB109 clients now make up 15 percent of its supervised population, but crime rates increased by only 11 percent.

The two counties in California that have the greatest percentage of AB109 individuals are Kings and Alpine Counties. AB109 clients comprise roughly one-third of county-supervised populations at 34.3 percent and 28.6 percent, respectively. Yet since 2010, Kings County’s total crime rate increased by 21.8 percent while Alpine County total crime rates decreased by 38.4 percent.
In contrast, low-realignment counties such as San Francisco saw significant increases in crime rates between 2010 and 2012.

San Francisco’s crime rate increased 15.3 percent between 2010 and 2012. Notably, it saw an 18.3 percent increase in property crimes and a 34 percent increase in MV theft. These numbers are awfully close to Alameda County’s figures: 19.2 percent increase in total crime, 21.1 percent increase in property, and 35.7 percent increase in MV theft. This could suggest that issues common to the Bay Area are driving the crime trends, rather than the AB109 population.

I have heard San Francisco police attribute increased motor-vehicle (MV) thefts to those out through Realignment, but the two counties with highest percentage of Realigned individuals are confounding: Alpine County’s MV theft rate increased by 31.4 percent but Kings County’s decreased by 5.5 percent.

Notably, CJCJ’s report responds to a study by the Public Policy Institute of California and gently contests its findings, which concluded that property crimes statewide increased significantly with Realignment. CJCJ’s analysis found that this relationship remains “simply an association, not a proven cause.”

San Francisco: How are AB109 clients doing?

Examining crime trends county-by-county is one thing, but what about the claim that clients who would have been under state custody in the past are now more dangerous, more violent, or more likely to commit future crimes? Fortunately, the San Francisco Adult Probation Department released a report last week detailing the first two years of Realignment in the city. The answer appears to be “no.”

Prior to 2011, 78 percent of those under California Department of Corrections (CDCR) parole returned to custody while on parole. In contrast, since Realignment began two years ago, 51 percent of San Francisco clients under PRCS and 40 percent of those under Mandatory Supervision returned to custody. This represents a 35 to 50 percent decrease in the rate at which clients returned to custody.

Still, many claim that AB109 clients are inherently higher risk than average county clients. Riverside County Executive Jay Orr recently said, “More than half of [our Realigned] probationers are at high-risk for re-offending.” One SFPD officer pointed out to me that the Realigned population is eligible for county supervision because the crime for which they were convicted was non-serious. However, many have a history of arrest or conviction for more “serious” offenses. He was correct— according to SFAPD, the AB09 clients’ averaged eight past convictions and some had serious ones, including manslaughter.

Since October 2011, counties took on responsibility for two different groups of new clients. The “PRCS population” were released from state prison to local probation under Realignment’s Post Release Community Supervision (PRCS) requirement because their convictions met certain non-serious criteria. Others, under “Mandatory Supervision,” were found guilty of crimes that previously carried state prison sentences but that now result in detention at local jails and subsequent probation supervision.

Furthermore, 75 percent of those under either a Mandatory Supervision or PRCS term with APD completed it successfully. Given that most on Mandatory Supervision were given sentences of an average of 25 months, many have not completed their stint simply because they have not yet had time to do so.

SFPD officers also expressed a concern that since PRCS clients complete their supervision after 12 months as opposed to longer terms on parole, they will commit further crimes with lesser consequences after one year. We will have to wait and see if that theory pans out.

Correlation’s easy, causation is a b****

We posed two questions at the start of this story: Does the AB109 population cause crime to increase in counties? Do San Francisco’s AB109 clients have poorer outcomes than they would have if supervised by CDCR? The answer is no, for now.

We have always known that crime trends are difficult to understand, let alone affect. These reports reinforce the existential nature of that statement. Yet SFAPD’s report suggests that the other 57 counties should take note of San Francisco’s methods. Adachi described its approach:

First, we’ve coordinated delivery of reentry services and programming such that many who would have been imprisoned are now released into halfway houses or programs. Second, through our City’s Reentry Council, which was formed in 2005 and includes government officials, nonprofit leaders and formerly incarcerated individuals, we have succeeded in bringing millions of dollars to our City in federal and state grants, which we’ve used to provide a greater array of health, drug treatment and reentry services to formerly incarcerated individuals. Third, all of the public officials are on the same page when it comes to not unnecessarily incarcerating people.

San Francisco’s Realignment plan is impressive, yet it still has work to do. In particular, San Francisco’s housing crisis hits those in contact with the criminal legal system particularly hard. Adachi admitted, “We need more housing for formerly incarcerated individuals, since about one-third to as much as one-half don’t have a stable residence when they are released.” He also noted the need for additional job training and opportunities. (The Fair Chance Ordinance, which passed the SF Board of Supervisors unanimously on Tuesday, would be a great step in the right direction.)

Goldstein of CJCJ told me that one of his primary concerns is that we “are seeing efforts to chip away at [AB109].” He continued, “You see individuals who point to stories of violent crime and try to connect it to Realignment [but] it’s not an effective strategy for policy makers to develop legislation based on anecdotal, narrow experiences of one subset of a county…. It’s not effective, it’s knee jerk and it doesn’t result in better public safety for the state.”

Despite San Francisco’s increased crime rate, the county’s results with its Realignment plan are impressive. In fact, the best lesson to draw from our city’s incongruous Realignment program and crime rates is that policy makers must examine criminal legal policy with great attention to detail and data—not with increased surveillance and incarceration. SFPD officers can expect a retort next time they badmouth Realignment.

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