Dan Walters

Dan Walters: New definition of recidivism minimizes political fallout from prison realignment

What’s in a word? A lot.

Criminologist Michael Maltz defines “recidivism” as “the reversion of an individual to criminal behavior after he or she has been convicted of a prior offense, sentenced and (presumably) corrected.”

Prior to 2011, California was infamous not only for its immense prison population – way over capacity, federal judges decreed – but for parolees’ high rates of recidivism.

Under pressure from the judges, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature enacted “realignment.” Those newly convicted of nonserious, nonsexual and nonviolent felonies would be diverted into local jails and probation systems, thereby shrinking the inmate population by attrition to a legal level.

Moreover, as inmates also deemed to be low-risk were released from prison, they also would go into local supervision, rather than the state’s parole system.

Counties would be paid billions of dollars to take the “realigned” felons and, it was assumed, would implement programs to reduce the high recidivism rate.

From the state’s standpoint, realignment has been a roaring success, dramatically reducing the prison population to very near the court’s designated level.

There is, however, continuing controversy over whether the realigned felons who otherwise might be in prison are committing new crimes in serious numbers, as well as complaints that their stretches in local jails are merely substituting local overcrowding for state prison overcrowding.

When it comes to recidivism, it appears to be a mixed bag, according to a new study from the Public Policy Institute of California, which says that, overall, the “post-realignment period has not seen dramatic changes in rearrests or reconvictions among this population.”

There are, however, wide variations among counties, the report says, and there are also variances in how local authorities define recidivism, which makes comparisons difficult.

Brown and legislators directed the Board of State and Community Corrections to create a single legal definition of recidivism and its proposal, drafted after months of consultation and discussion, is also stirring controversy.

A felon would be considered a recidivist only if convicted of a new felony or misdemeanor committed within three years of release from custody or of being placed under parole or probation supervision.

A new conviction is the narrowest definition of recidivism among the options noted in the PPIC report, which include rearrest or being returned to prison for parole violation, both of which have been employed in the past.

The tight definition would be the only one in state law if adopted by the board in November. And either by design or happenstance, it would minimize official recidivism rates under realignment and thus, it seems, shield politicians from criticism.