Note from Toni: Are AB 109 and Proposition 47 really working?

Posted: November 4th, 2016 | Columnists, Featured, Notes from Toni | No Comments

By Toni G. Atkins | Notes from Toni

As I have attended neighborhood meetings here in San Diego and talked to community members, I’ve heard the assertion more than once that AB 109 and Proposition 47 have resulted in higher crime rates.

Passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor in 2011, AB 109 was a response to a severe problem in California: overcrowding in our state prisons.

Also referred to as “realignment,” it took responsibility for supervising certain felony offenders and state prison parolees away from state prisons and state parole agents and gave it to county jails and probation officers.

Assemblymember Toni Atkins

Toni G. Atkins

Counties were provided with state funding to pay for the increased caseload and given significant flexibility in the way they implemented AB 109. Those were key considerations in my support for AB 109.

Along those same lines, Prop. 47, which was placed on the ballot as a citizens-led initiative and approved by California voters in 2014, reclassified certain nonviolent felony crimes as misdemeanors and made some prisoners eligible for possible resentencing, pending a thorough review.

It also created a fund for the generated savings, to be spent on programs aimed at reducing prison recidivism.

Many law enforcement officials — including San Diego’s police chief — express concern that these two measures are making the public less safe, although researchers say it’s too early to define the impacts of Prop. 47.

As for AB 109, I came across a news story that should be part of our ongoing conversation. It was a Sept. 29 KQED story, written by Marisa Lagos, that reported AB 109 has not increased crime; this was based on a study by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), which Lagos calls the “most comprehensive study of realignment’s impacts.” You can search online for the headline, “Five Years Later, Many See Criminal Justice Realignment As Success,” to read it yourself.

That’s good news. As UC Irvine criminologist Charis Kubrin said in the story, it means “we can downsize our prisons … without harming public safety.”

As the KQED story noted, AB 109 was a controversial idea.

Matt Cate, who in 2011 oversaw the state’s prisons, warned Gov. Jerry Brown at that time that the plan was risky. These days, Cate is executive director of the California State Association of Counties — counties bear the brunt of the new responsibility — and he sees it as a success.

We already knew that massive-scale incarceration doesn’t work. It’s enormously expensive for taxpayers and that money could be spent on many other worthwhile programs, from education and childcare to public health and targeted tax credits for job creation. Too often, inmates come out of prisons worse than they went in; we just haven’t done a very good job on the rehabilitation side.

I believe that rehabilitation is the right policy goal in the short term. I’m confident that the counties that focus holistically on reintegrating former inmates will be those that see less crime and reduced recidivism. In the long term, we need to focus on prevention through policies that promote healthy children, healthy families, and healthy communities. County officials in San Diego — the Sheriff, the health and human services director, the chief probation officer, and the District Attorney — are leaders in this arena.

Still, not everything in the KQED story was positive about AB 109. It noted that the PPIC released a paper more recently saying that predicted savings from realignment haven’t yet materialized. Costs have merely been shifted to counties, where jails are experiencing overcrowding.

Given that some in law enforcement still have serious reservations and given that counties are feeling the growing pains, this issue is not completely settled in my mind. It’s likely that more needs to be done to make sure the policy is working at all levels, perhaps with additional post-release rehabilitation programs, housing assistance and more resources for counties to support our local sheriffs and probation departments.

I’m encouraged that the data are pointing to success so far, but this is the state’s most important public safety issue, so I assure you, I’ll be monitoring it closely and continuing the dialogue with you.

—Toni G. Atkins is the Speaker Emeritus of the California State Assembly. For more information, please visit her website, where you can sign up for her e-newsletter or get the latest news on legislation and other activities. You also may follow her on Twitter, @toniatkins.

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