One of the standard criticisms of programs to unburden California's overcrowded network of prisons and county jails is that crime will increase as more felons are released on parole and more lower-level offenders are put on probation instead of being sent to jail. The argument goes that inmates are criminals by definition and we can expect them to commit more crimes when they are freed. And if that's the case, we can expect arrest records to show that parolees and probationers make up a huge portion of the population of people arrested for new crimes.
A study commissioned by Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and the chiefs of three other California police departments suggests otherwise. In a report released late last month, the Council for State Governments Justice Center showed that the vast majority of people arrested in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento and Redlands during the study period — 2008 through the middle of 2011 — were on neither probation nor parole, nor had they ever been. Of those who were, most of the new crimes involved drugs, not violence. In fact, relatively few arrestees who were on parole or probation — only 7% in Los Angeles — were arrested for violent crimes.
Especially eye-opening was the very low arrest rate of former prison inmates released on "non-revocable parole," a program begun in 2010 to stop the return flow to prison of parolees who committed nonviolent, "technical" violations of parole conditions, such as failing a drug test or showing up in the wrong part of town.
The study period ended right before counties began taking more convicted felons, both in jails and in probation, under AB 109, broadly known as public safety realignment. A follow-up study is needed.
On Monday, in a separate study, the Vera Institute of Justice reported that a large proportion of county jail inmates from two study areas — Boyle Heights and South Los Angeles — preparing to reenter society have drug or mental health problems.
More research is needed, but the figures from both the Council for State Governments and the Vera Institute suggest that many people who wind up in jail or prison got into trouble at least in part because of clinical conditions, and that many of them come out with the same problems they had when they went in.
If public resources are to be spent effectively, California must cut its recidivism rate, and to do that, it must use data to slice through the posturing of those in politics and law enforcement who claim to "know," without facts or figures, what people, policies or laws to blame for crime. If drug and mental health problems play a large role in landing people behind bars, it stands to reason that focusing more on diagnosis and treatment could save taxpayers money, reduce the criminal burden on neighborhoods and, by the way, address some of the misery and hopelessness of those caught in the revolving jailhouse door.