[Editor’s Note: April was National County Government month. During this time to highlight the tools and skills of local governments, CSAC launched its broader theme for the coming year: Smart Justice. Since Realignment, counties have found themselves as the innovators and implementers of broad responsibilities in the state’s criminal justice system. Smart Justice highlights the growth and development of programs to deal with realigned offenders and how counties are working to improve their lives and their communities.]

The state’s 2011 shift of criminal justice responsibility to counties under AB 109 has generated extensive commentary and analysis about how well it’s working. As it happens, “Smart Justice” is the theme for the National Association of Counties’ County Government Month, and counties are indeed working smarter to manage these new responsibilities.

Many counties are developing and expanding programs designed to reduce recidivism. For County Government Month CSAC is highlighting the best practices of four California counties. Glenn, San Bernardino, San Mateo and San Joaquin Counties use risk assessments and evidence-based programming to help turn lives around and reduce recidivism. CSAC has documented these efforts in short videos, talking with administrators, program experts and the offenders themselves to see how Smart Justice is really working. You can find the videos at http://www.csac.counties.org/smart-justice-california-counties

While each county does things their own way, their programs are similar. They typically start by assessing the offenders to identify their individual “criminogenic” factors, to find out what makes it more likely they will re-offend and what can be done to mitigate those factors. Many offenders need substance abuse treatment or other behavioral health services; some simply need a different place to live away from criminal influences, and many also need basic financial help so they have food, housing and transportation while they get back on their feet. Eventually, they need training and other help finding employment.

As one program administrator said, this isn’t a hand out, it’s a hand up. Meeting an offender’s basic needs reduces new criminal activity and costs less than sending them back to incarceration. It’s also important to remember that realignment happened after federal courts ordered California to reduce its prison population by approximately 35,000 inmates. California could have simply turned these inmates loose with little or no supervision. That was clearly not a good option. Realignment was designed to assess offenders as individuals and provide them with the right level of supervision and assistance.

With a little more than a year and a half of experience, counties don’t have enough empirical data to accurately and completely assess the effectiveness of realignment. Surely it isn’t perfect, but transferring responsibility for these offenders and giving counties the funding and flexibility to design programs locally is a far safer and better scenario than simply turning offender loose would have been. And there is a growing body of evidence that county programs are reducing recidivism rates by helping offenders get back on their feet. Smart Justice is alive and growing in California counties. Watch the videos, and see for yourself.