By Thomas G. Hoffman.
The state of California has made great progress in curbing an incarceration rate that has cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars. The failed policy of mass incarceration was also not effective in keeping our communities safe because it did not effectively address the causes of crime, so we could prevent it from occurring in the first place.
But critics of reform, driven largely by local law enforcement associations, continue to define effective public safety policy primarily in terms of their capacity to incarcerate as many people as possible for as long as possible. I learned during my nearly 40-year law enforcement career, which included serving as deputy police chief in West Sacramento and as director of state parole, that defining what is effective public safety policy primarily in terms of arresting and incarcerating offenders dooms us to pursue a factually dysfunctional model. It just does not make sense that the answer for crime is a system that runs on the most expensive “remedy” for criminal behavior we can pursue and which has no plan for reforming prisoners so that they will not return to a criminal lifestyle once they get out.
People who are violent and who pose a threat to the safety of our communities must be incarcerated. About that there is no debate. That’s why it’s imperative that we thoughtfully and carefully manage our state’s finite number of jail and prison beds so they’re prioritized for dangerous and violent criminals.
The reality is, arrest and incarceration are not the gold standard for achieving and maintaining public safety. Indeed, very few of the crimes committed result in the arrest, conviction and incarceration of an offender. According to F.B.I. data, only about half of all non-violent crimes are ever reported to the police. And of those, less than 15 percent result in an arrest. The same is true for violent crimes – many are not reported to the police and a clearance rate of just 50 percent is common. This data underscores the importance of bringing balance to our criminal justice system by reallocating dollars historically earmarked for incarceration to community-based prevention programs aimed at addressing the root causes of crime. Recent efforts to reform our state’s criminal justice system have been driven by a commitment to reducing the practice of simply reacting to crime – often with very limited success – and instead addressing the root causes of crime in a sustainable way by helping to prevent the next criminal event before it occurs. This will increase the safety of our communities while making better use of taxpayer dollars.
Yet critics of reform have continued to levy baseless attacks in an effort to undermine it.
If Proposition 47 were responsible for an increase in crime, we would expect to see the same, or very similar, patterns in crime rates all across the state. Predictably, this is not the case, as we know some communities have seen a slight increase in crime rates in recent years while others have seen either a reduction in crime rates or no change at all. In San Diego County, crime has continued to plummet during the past decade, and in 2017 reached lows not seen in half a century. The truth is, crime rates are driven by local policy and dynamics much more than by any statewide policy.
Critics of Proposition 57 claim the initiative’s authors, which included Gov. Jerry Brown, were disingenuous about who would be eligible under the law to earn a parole hearing by successfully completing rehabilitative and educational programs, thus enabling violent and dangerous criminals to flood our streets. But Prop. 57 did not change the definition in the state penal code of what constitutes a violent or non-violent crime. Furthermore, prior to this reform, California was releasing from prison over 10,000 people every month. Today that number is approximately 2,800. Importantly, the majority of those released today, including everyone released under Prop. 57, must now be approved by the parole board after a formal parole board suitability hearing. This is a significant improvement over past policies to simply release people based entirely on the fact they had served their required number of days in custody.
We are all safer when more people have opportunities to participate in rehabilitation and re-entry programs, when survivors of crime are provided trauma recovery services and crisis care and when we address the root factors of crime in our communities. We must use our taxpayer dollars wisely and invest in programs and services that actually prevent crime.