SACRAMENTO (AP) — In response to a federal court order, Gov. Jerry Brown pushed a novel approach through the Legislature two years ago to dramatically reduce California’s prison population.
People convicted of felonies that were considered non-violent, non-sexual and non-serious would serve their sentences in county jails rather than state prisons. Once released, they would be supervised by local probation officers instead of state parole agents.
The shift in California’s penal system, referred to as “realignment,” is one of the nation’s largest criminal justice experiments and has done its job in at least one respect: The population in the state’s 33 adult prisons has dropped so much that the system now ranks second to Texas in the number of inmates, even though Texas has 12 million fewer residents.
But the change has not come without criticism.
Many law enforcement officials, victims’ rights groups and Republican lawmakers say crime has increased because of Brown’s realignment law, as the wave of new inmates arriving in some county jails is leading to overcrowded conditions and the early release of dangerous felons.
Advocacy groups seized on preliminary FBI crime statistics to argue both sides of the issue.
Though still low in comparison to previous decades, property and violent crimes increased in 40 of California’s 69 largest cities in the first six months of 2012, the largest such increase in 20 years, and the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation said realignment is clearly to blame.
But the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice said violent crime rates dropped in five counties that received a lion’s share of the lower-level offenders who previously would have gone to state prisons, showing that counties can handle the influx without a corresponding rise in crime.