Instead of “One Size Fits All” Justice That Hurts Communities, Let’s Get Smart on Crime

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America is a global leader on many fronts — including incarceration. The United States is home to less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but houses almost one quarter of its prisoners. These figures have grown exponentially in recent years: America’s federal prison population increased by 800 percent since 1980, with most of those offenders incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. As the most populous state in the nation, California has been uniquely impacted by these incarceration trends.

The issue was brought into sharp focus when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its 2011 Brown v. Plata decision. The Court affirmed a lower court’s decision ordering California to reduce its in-state adult prison population from approximately 156,000 to 110,000 inmates, or 137.5 percent of design capacity. In response, the California Legislature passed and Governor Jerry Brown signed the Criminal Justice Realignment Act of 2011. Realignment shifted responsibility for the incarceration and supervision of low-level, nonviolent offenders from the state prison system to California’s 58 counties. It also directed significant financial resources to counties to handle their increased responsibilities and to create localized alternative solutions to incarceration.

Three years in, Realignment has achieved one of its primary purposes — reduction of the population of California’s prison system. Following implementation of Realignment, the state redirected 30,000 recently convicted offenders who would have gone to state prison to county jail and shifted supervision of 50,000 offenders from state parole agents to county probation departments. Realignment has also forced an examination of California’s return on its investment in incarceration. The state spends an estimated $13 billion per year on criminal justice, but almost two thirds of those released from state prison go on to commit another crime within three years. This rate of recidivism is a waste of taxpayer dollars, and it is a threat to victims of crime and to public safety in general.

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