When California’s state legislators passed AB 109, the Public Safety Realignment Act of 2011, their backs were against the wall. The U.S. Supreme Court had declared overcrowding in the state prison system constituted cruel and unusual punishment, and voters were in no mood to approve the tax increases necessary to build and operate new prisons that would expand the system’s capacity.
So the state embarked on what has been called the largest penal experiment in history. In order to reduce the prison system’s population, a new category of criminal—the non-violent, non-sexual, non-serious felon—was created. The responsibility for incarcerating and rehabilitating these lower level offenders was shifted from the state prison system to the state’s 58 county jails and probation departments, with a renewed emphasis on rehabilitation.
One of the primary drivers of prison overcrowding is the state prison system’s abysmal 75 percent recidivism rate, long one of the highest in the country. Three-out-of-four inmates are re-arrested within three years of their release from prison, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. One-in-two are re-convicted. Until relatively recently, the criminal justice system had few tools to effectively deal with recidivism’s revolving door.
That’s where the experimental part comes in. AB 109 promotes and provides funding for counties to implement so-called evidence-based rehabilitation programs. These programs, which range from drug abuse treatment to mental health therapy to vocational training, rely heavily on collecting demographic data and criminal histories of individual offenders to determine proper treatment modalities. In some cases, evidence-based programs have been proven to dramatically reduce recidivism.
Shasta County’s Day Reporting Center, operated by a private contractor for the Probation Department, is an example of an evidence-based program. The DRC has been online since 2013 and produces detailed annual reports that track program attendance, drug test results, individual and total dosage hours, program discharge status and employment outcomes.
About the only thing you won’t find, as the Shasta County Grand Jury recently pointed out, is the county’s recidivism rate. Nor apparently will you find it on any other county document. According to the report, county “personnel encountered difficulty in providing the grand jury with reliable data on recidivism due to complexities in their ability to collect the data and accurately compile it.”
The grand jury posed an obvious question. If reducing the recidivism rate is one of AB 109’s primary goals, and Shasta County doesn’t know what that rate is, how do we know the $40 million-plus in AB 109 funds the county has received since 2011 have been spent effectively?
The answer is we don’t, at least not for certain. Noting that the county only spends 20 percent of its AB 109 budget on evidence-based programs, the grand jury came down hard on the Community Corrections Partnership, the multi-agency organization that includes the sheriff and chief of probation, and the Board of Supervisors, which oversees the CCP.
“The Community Corrections Partnership does not require all programs and services to collect outcome-based data or program evaluations to show whether current spending is effective in reducing recidivism,” the grand jury found. “The Shasta County Board of Supervisors routinely approves AB 109 budgets without review of the effectiveness of their programs, which creates a potential for less effective budget decisions.”
As it turns out, Shasta County isn’t the only county grappling with the implementation of data-intensive evidence-based practices. There’s a reason for that, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, a San Francisco-based nonprofit think-tank that studies criminal justice reform. In its 2014 report, “Corrections Realignment and Data Collection in California,” the PPIC noted:
“With a strong focus on reducing California’s high recidivism rates, the [Public Safety Alignment Act] encouraged counties to consider alternatives to incarceration and to adopt evidence-based practices. Yet, despite the promotion of an evidence-based approach, the act did not require or provide direct support for data collection, research, or evaluation.”
PPIC researcher Mia Bird, a co-author of the report, wasn’t surprised Shasta County is experiencing problems, since other counties are, too.
“We have found there are legitimate challenges to accessing agency-level data, as well as integrating data from multiple agencies,” she said.
Bird also pointed out that Shasta County personnel, including members of the probation department, the sheriff’s office and district attorney’s office, do collect data and relay it to the Board of State and Community Corrections, which oversees the implementation of AB 109 in the state’s 58 counties.
It turns out Shasta County is one of 12 counties participating in the BSCC and PPIC’s Multi-County Survey, which according to the institute, “was established in the wake of public safety realignment with the goal of bringing together the data needed to rigorously evaluate the statewide effects of this policy reform and to identify the most effective recidivism-reduction interventions at the local level.”
In fact, thanks to Shasta County’s participation in the MCS, it’s now possible to state the county’s recidivism rate—but only for the 2011-2013 time period, the first two years under realignment.
Last December, PPIC published “Realignment and Recidivism in California,” also co-authored by Bird, one of the first studies to accurately measure AB 109’s effect on the state’s recidivism rate. The report used MCS data to examine two types of AB 109 offenders.
Prison inmates released to post-release community supervision in their respective counties are known as the PRCS group. Non-violent, non-sexual, non-serious felons who were formerly sentenced to prison but are now sentenced to county jails comprise the 1170(h) group.
In order to accurately measure AB 109’s effect on these two groups, the researchers created corresponding cohorts comprised of similar, low level offenders released from prison from 2009 to 2011, before AB 109 went into effect. It then compared the re-arrest and re-conviction rates of the pre-AB 109 and AB 109 cohorts over one- and two-year time periods.
“Re-conviction rates are considered validated recidivism because re-offending behavior has been proven via the judicial system,” Bird explained. “However, re-arrest rates may also provide an indicator of misconduct and may reflect important aspects of how the criminal justice system is changing, such as changes in the burden on law enforcement under policy reforms. We use both measures.”
Statewide, the study found the recidivism rate for PRCS offenders was slightly higher than its pre-AB 109 cohort. The two-year re-arrest rate for PRCS offenders was 71.9 percent, compared to 69.3 percent for the cohort. The two-year re-conviction rate was 56.4 percent for PRCS offenders, compared to 54 percent for the cohort.
Offenders in the 1170(h) group, lower level felons who are now sentenced to the county jail, had a two-year re-arrest rate of 74.5 percent, compared to 72.2 percent for their pre-AB 109 cohort. The two-year re-conviction rate for the 1170(h) groups, 54.9 percent, was slightly lower than its cohort’s 56.9 percent.
The study found a good deal of variation between the 12 counties in the MCS, especially for 1170(h) offenders. More than half the counties had considerably lower re-arrest and re-conviction rates for this group, including Shasta County. The one-year re-arrest rate for 1170(h) offenders in Shasta County was about 33 percent, compared to 50 percent for the pre-AB 109 cohort. The one-year re-conviction rate was 16 percent, compared to the cohort’s 40 percent.
“In this study, we limit this group to only those convicted of an 1170(h) offense and serving time locally who would have likely gone to prison prior to realignment,” Bird cautioned in regard to interpreting the positive results. “In Shasta, this group includes 71 individuals, a very small sample from which to draw any conclusions.”
Interestingly, the report found that statewide, offenders who are supervised after release have higher recidivism rates than those who are not.
“Our findings indicate higher rates of recidivism for the groups supervised following release: those on PRCS and those who received split sentences under 1170(h),” the report stated. “While it may simply be easier to detect re-offending when an individual is under supervision, it is also possible that supervision conditions create more opportunities for non-criminal violations.”
However, for the most part, the state’s recidivism rate for the first two years AB 109 was in effect remained relatively unchanged. Which is to say it remained stubbornly high. This is expected to improve as more evidence-based programs come on line. It’s worth noting that Shasta County’s evidence-based program, the Day Reporting Center, didn’t begin operation until 2013, outside the window of the PPIC’s study.
Whoever complained to the Shasta County Grand Jury about the complexities of collecting and analyzing recidivism data wasn’t kidding. It’s a painstakingly slow process that’s not moving fast enough for communities up and down California struggling to deal with the low level criminals now in their midst. For them, the answers can’t come soon enough.
“The BSCC-PPIC Multi-County Study is our best effort to improve the availability of data and policy or practice relevant research,” Bird said.
“We are making great progress, but there have also been a number of hurdles to overcome and, therefore, the pace is slower than we would have hoped.”