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Crime and punishment in California

Prison can't be the state's primary tool to fight crime.

November 28, 2012|By James Austin

We have more work to do. Reducing the justice system's costs without compromising public safety starts with the acknowledgment that the state has for too long punished people beyond its means, and too often those punishments did not fit the crime, or ultimately improve public safety. Fortunately, there are models in practice that counties can implement or expand for immediate impact.

San Francisco, Contra Costa and Santa Cruz are among many counties using split sentences — the person spends part of the time on supervised probation and the rest incarcerated — to ensure their jail populations do not increase post-realignment. Contra Costa County has shortened probation terms (18 months or less versus three- to five-year terms), which has produced significantly lower recidivism rates and probation caseloads.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has launched a comprehensive rehabilitation program to reduce jail violence and recidivism, and soon will begin a pilot pretrial program that monitors low-risk offenders in the community as they await trial, instead of having them sit in crowded jails.

These approaches and others show that we can safely reduce jail and prison populations, but only if brave policymakers and leaders in law enforcement continue to test the faltering assumptions that prison is the first or only answer to crime, and that law enforcement is not open to change.

James Austin, president of the JFA Institute, is a former executive with the Institute on Crime, Justice and Corrections at George Washington University.

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