Dan Walters: Crime data conflicts need airing

Gov. Jerry Brown’s “realignment” of the state’s penal system is a year old and he claims it’s been so successful in reducing prison overcrowding that federal judges should butt out, even though it hasn’t reached the mandated level of 137.5 percent of prison design capacity.

The governor says that without judicial relief, he could achieve that level only by releasing dangerous inmates to prey upon the public.

To date, prison reduction has stemmed from diverting thousands of newly sentenced, low-level felons into local jails and probation or parole systems and giving counties billions of dollars to pay for their keep and supervision.

To make room for the diverted felons, some county sheriffs have been releasing miscreants lower on the penal food chain, such as drunken drivers.

“Corrections” has become a numbers game, eerily reminiscent of the “body count” mentality during the Vietnam War, not just how many bodies are in prisons and jails, but how many crimes are being committed by those now on the street, rather than behind bars.

The rosy picture being painted by realignment advocates includes the assertion little crime is being committed by those free on probation or parole.

They are touting a study of four California cities by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, covering crimes committed by probationers and parolees prior to realignment, declaring that they accounted for “only 22 percent of total arrests” in the four cities during a 3.5-year period, and an even lesser portion of violent crime arrests.

But the anti-realignment Criminal Justice Legal Foundation trumpeted FBI crime data showing a 7.6 percent increase in homicides and double-digit increases in burglary and auto theft in California during the first half of last year, concluding, “Crime in California is increasing under realignment.”

A rival pro-realignment group, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, immediately responded with its analysis of the crime data, declaring, “Realigned offenders … do not appear disproportionately responsible for reported crime increases in 40 California cities in the first half of 2012.”

Finally, Los Angeles County’s Countywide Criminal Justice Coordination Committee released a one-year examination of the county’s realignment experience, saying 26 percent of parolees being supervised by the county were arrested for new crimes within six months. Meanwhile, the county’s jail population has jumped 23 percent, thanks to an infusion of 5,588 inmates diverted from state prisons.

Taxpayers and voters need someone to independently sort through the conflicting data and tell us what the bottom line effect of realignment really has been. And since Brown’s administration won’t do it, the Legislature should.