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Thursday, Jun 14 2012 11:02 PM

Realignment demands new aim for prisons

By The Bakersfield Californian

As a committee of Kern County criminal justice and public safety leaders begins discussing how to spend proposed state funding for local prison realignment efforts, speculation is swirling that realignment is driving up crime locally.

Law enforcement officials have repeatedly said the increased demand on local jails has resulted in the early release of criminals and an uptick in crime. Burglaries in the county are reportedly up 17 percent in the first four months of 2012. But no one has concrete proof of a link and the same local officials who keep blaming realignment for higher crime are always careful to note their hunches aren't validated with data.

Certainly, there are a number of other factors that could be impacting the local crime rate: high unemployment and a bad economic outlook, coupled with cuts to safety net programs, can create desperate situations for some. But even if crime rates can be linked to realignment, that doesn't necessarily mean realignment is a complete failure.

California has always had a problem with released felons violating parole or committing new crimes. In a pre-realignment report of felons released from state prisons in 2006-07, 65 percent were found to have reoffended and landed back in prison within three years. That high rate has largely been blamed on a lack of rehabilitation and re-entry programs.

Realignment was meant to give local communities the flexibility to implement programs to deal with nonserious offenders. But few new programs have been developed locally. Instead, Kern County has largely replicated the state model of simply locking away criminals and drug addicts.

The research on recidivism prevention is clear. Programs such as vocational training, expanded drug treatment and transitional housing curb recidivism. In particular, drug addicts, who tend to commit the types of crimes that have increased locally, are far less likely to return to prison when they undergo drug treatment.

When realignment started last October, county officials said they didn't receive enough state money to create these kinds of programs. Instead, nearly 85 percent of the $10.8 million received went to new jail beds, deputies and probation officers. However, Kern is expected to get almost 120 percent more funding this time around, or about $23.5 million. That's an exception among most other San Joaquin Valley counties. The Fresno Bee recently reported that most valley counties are slated to get much smaller increases.

Kern County officials must use the opportunity to fund new programs that have proved to reduce recidivism and help criminals and addicts turn their lives around.

The good news is the local committee allocating Kern County's funds seems poised to do just that. A preliminary report by the committee favors allocating more funding to alternative programs and contracts with community-based groups by making small reductions in the percentage of money given to the Probation and Sheriff's departments.

This is a smart move on the committee's part that should remain in place throughout ongoing negotiations. The approach is also more in line with the true intent behind realignment, which is not to re-create prisons locally but to create more effective strategies to deal with the prison problem.

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