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Sep 2011
Early release of felons will challenge public safety

At a recent Long Beach City Council meeting numerous speakers argued in support of restoring public safety funds cut by the city. One theme persisted: We need more police officers, not fewer, to prepare for the release of thousands of felons by the state.

Those speakers were referring to what's been dubbed "Realignment," the plan approved by Gov. Brown and the state Legislature to divert felons believed to be "nonviolent" from state prison to save the state money. It is expected these felons would be taken in by county jails, and that may be the case in some counties. In Los Angeles County, however, the jails are already overcrowded. When the jails are filled, the Sheriff's Department will have no choice but to release inmates.

This means "massive early releases" of prisoners. Those aren't my words, they are the words of Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, whose recent presentation to county supervisors started a bureaucratic alarm bell ringing that grows louder with each day. He also called the coming crisis "a public safety nightmare." State officials better be listening.

By the way, "massive early releases" has been the norm in Los Angeles County for years. Violent criminals convicted of misdemeanor crimes often spend less than a week in jail for 60- or 90-day sentences because the sheriff lacks space and resources. If realignment results in massive early releases statewide, the releases will be more "massive" and "earlier" here.

At a meeting last week with Gov. Brown police chiefs warned that the release of inmates on such a large scale will cause crime spikes - more auto thefts, burglaries and shoplifting, for example. In Los Angeles County alone, we should expect 9,000 felons diverted to the county in the first year and 15,000 or more felons the following year.

There is a perfect storm brewing. Inmates released into the community will join many others looking for work in a county where unemployment is over 12 percent, and no economic improvements expected in the near future. Realistically, when there are 100 applicants for each job opening, employers are unlikely to hire parolees.

Many who are released will return to crime. For some, a life of crime is all they know. This will mean more work for law enforcement and prosecutors.

Which brings me back to the recent Long Beach City Council meeting.

Residents naturally oppose cuts to law enforcement, but cities like Long Beach are strapped for money. Cities can't delegate (or realign, to use the state's vernacular) their responsibilities to balance their budgets.

Critical cuts have already been made and now the toughest cuts remain, including cuts to a police department already thinned by attrition. The timing could not be worse, right at the onset of the early release of thousands of criminals.

If there is one possible ray of light in this otherwise dark approaching storm cloud, it is that alternatives to traditional incarceration will be tested. Some may surprise us, although I share skepticism with many other prosecutors that some work-release programs, electronic monitoring, home detention and similar programs are not truly effective to reduce recidivism or serve as a deterrent.

But some do work. For example, my office runs a Community Service Worker program that allows some nonviolent, first-time offenders to perform community service, e.g., picking up trash in parks and beaches under the supervision of city workers, in lieu of criminal prosecution.

The crisis created by realignment, however, will force all of us to reevaluate alternative sentencing programs, and challenge those running them to prove they work. They better work, or we all need to be braced for the public safety nightmare predicted by DA Cooley.

Douglas P. Haubert is city prosecutor of Long Beach.



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