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  • Mike Jimenez is state president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.

  • Timothy Silard is president of the Rosenberg Foundation.

Viewpoints: Don't build more jails – fix inmate recidivism

Published: Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 5E
Last Modified: Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012 - 9:04 am

In polls and with their votes, Californians are sending a strong message that they are ready for the state to move in a new direction when it comes to public safety.

With realignment, local law enforcement has an unrivaled opportunity to lead us in this new direction, but the jury is still out on whether local officials will take up this challenge by adopting strategies that will make neighborhoods safer while maximizing scarce resources.

It's been more than a year since the state – prompted by a major corrections crisis and a directive from the U.S. Supreme Court to reduce prison overcrowding – instituted realignment. In doing so, the state finally acknowledged that simply putting more people in prison was not the answer to its public safety woes. In fact, the Legislature recognized that California must reduce prison overcrowding and invest its limited resources to support programs and practices proven to keep people safe.

The state also gave local law enforcement and county officials the power to solve a problem that has plagued California for decades – how to keep our communities safe by stopping the revolving door of recidivism. Unfortunately, so far, many counties seem to be choosing to replicate the decisions that left the state's criminal justice system broken in the first place.

Today, more than half of California's counties are investing funding they received from the state to build or expand their local jails. Only a few are making real investments in proven crime-fighting strategies, such as re-entry centers, supervised pretrial release, rehabilitation and alternatives to incarceration – evidence-based practices that would lessen jail overcrowding and increase safety for California communities.

If this continues, not only will cash-strapped counties have to deal with the severe long-term financial consequences of a jail-building boom, but the window of opportunity that local law enforcement and county leaders now have to fix a long-broken system will close. Counties and the state must act before it is too late.

We know that county law enforcement officials were given the difficult task of managing a huge influx of people convicted of nonviolent, nonserious, non-sex-related offenses. They are absolutely right in their goal to put public safety first while reducing their jail overcrowding dilemma, but building and staffing expensive new jails is not the solution.

More than 70 percent of jail inmates are currently pretrial detainees – people who have yet to be convicted but are simply too poor to post bail while awaiting their trial date. Counties can alleviate jail overcrowding by using proven evidence-based practices to assess which inmates pose a risk to public safety. They can implement strategies to supervise out of custody those who don't, at less cost, while much-needed jail space can be reserved for serious offenders. Risk-assessment tools, alternatives to incarceration and community-based programs can be used at each stage of the criminal justice process.

Counties also are tasked with dealing with California's recidivism rate, one of the highest in the nation, and local law enforcement must ensure that the state's revolving prison door problem does not become a county jail problem. A job is one of the best tools for reducing recidivism, and one solution is for the state and local officials to join forces to create multi-county re-entry facilities, again at less cost. Inmates nearing the end of their sentences can be trained and eased back into society, and given the job and life skills they need when they leave jail.

In addition to fresh ideas, moving in this new direction also will require new collaborations between seemingly unlikely allies. That's why our two organizations – California's correctional peace officers association and a civil rights foundation long focused on criminal justice reform – are co-funding an effort to create a centralized data source that provides detailed crime, sentencing and incarceration information for California's 58 counties.

The resulting interactive map, developed by the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, can be used by state policymakers, county agencies, practitioners, criminal justice stakeholders, researchers and the general public to evaluate sentencing policies and practices across the state.

Californians are clear that they are ready to turn the page on the state's failed approach to public safety. They want a prison and justice system that costs less and works more effectively. It is up to county officials and local leaders to lead us in a new direction. Our communities deserve nothing less.

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