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Editorial: A promising start on rehabilitating offenders

It has taken too long, and it’s a relatively small step. Still, a promising rehabilitation program should point the way forward for Sacramento County.

California is in the third year of public safety realignment – the sweeping plan to take nonviolent, low-level offenders out of state prisons and have them serve their time in local communities. So far, too little focus and funding have gone to another goal of realignment – to find better ways to help inmates return to society and keep them from committing more crimes.

As we’ve noted, that has certainly been true in Sacramento County, where almost all the realignment money from the state – more than $28 million a year – has been given to the Sheriff’s and Probation departments, mostly for jail space and post-release supervision.

In January, however, the Sheriff’s Department signed a contract with Ascend, an alternative sentencing program run by two Sacramento-area criminal defense lawyers.

So far, the department has referred 11 inmates, nine of them under realignment. It is paying about $1,200 a month for each offender in the program, which typically lasts four months. That $4,800 total is a bargain compared with the $30,000 a year it costs to keep the same offender in county jail.

As The Sacramento Bee’s Kim Minugh described Tuesday, Ascend tries to teach offenders how to rise above the thought patterns that lead to criminal behavior. Christine Morse Galves and Toni Carbone have put together a curriculum that includes time management, good nutrition and yoga.

Under the sheriff’s contract, selected offenders, who are halfway through their jail sentences, are released to home detention and Ascend. Participants must attend three-hour classes twice a week, pass random drug tests and complete community service. If they fail the program, they get more jail time.

Of 61 offenders who have gone through the program since it started in 2011, less than 15 percent have reoffended, according to Morse Galves. In August, two realignment participants enrolled in community college and four more are expected to do so in the spring.

These early results are encouraging. We still need many more mental health, drug treatment and other programs that can break the cycle of recidivism and make our community safer.

Until now, Sacramento County’s realignment cash has been parceled out by the Community Corrections Partnership, a panel comprised almost entirely of law enforcement officials. In this spring’s budget debate, county supervisors decided to assert more control over the realignment money, saying they want more to go to rehabilitation.

If programs like Ascend can prove they work, that will help them stand up to the soft-on-crime brickbats that will surely be lobbed their way. Realignment is a chance to be smarter about criminal justice. It would be a shame to fritter it away.