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Realignment, SJ County style, appears to reduce crime

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POSTED May 31, 2013 1:42 a.m.

Prison realignment - given how San Joaquin County is implementing it - may end up reducing crime.

That’s because a seamless Community Corrections Plan drawing together law enforcement, prosecutors, probation, the courts, public defenders, counseling agencies, and others working together makes sure low-level offenders are no longer given “rest” periods behind bars.

Rest is how the hard-nosed prosecutor turned San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Richard Vlavianos describes giving repeat offenders extended time in jail or prison for violating conditions of their parole.

Vlavianos told Manteca Noon Rotarians Thursday that repeat offender’s view prison differently than most people would.

Prison, the judge noted for those not serving terms for murder and other violent crimes including aggravated sexual assaults, is a relaxing time by providing a predictable routine with three meals, a place to sleep, television, and other diversions.

“They’re ready to rip and run when they’re released,” the judge said.

Vlavianos added repeat offenders that violate probation would prefer doing an extended time in jail instead of going through programs aimed at sobering them up, modifying behavior, and addressing the root of their problems.

“Going to jail for a time is easier for them,” Vlavianos noted.

Robert - a former offender over a 20-year period who now works as a counselor - told Rotarians that “you get real comfortable in prison. It is like a rest for low level offenders. It’s easy. . . and when you get out you’re ready to rip and run.”

He added that  the community diversion program is harder because “change is scary.”

While the jury is still out on how well implementation of Assembly Bill 109 will go in San Joaquin County, the early statistics look promising.

In Manteca, as an example, there were only seven violations of AB 109 prison inmates that were released for the 12-month period ending November of 2012. The number is at seven as well for the sixth month period ending at the start of April 2013. Predictions by opponents of AB 109 contended those numbers would be significantly higher.

While Vlavianos concedes there is still crime being committed by those released early, it is at a lower frequency. And given the fact you can’t wipe-out all criminal behavior, he believes being able to reduce it is a big win.

Vlavianos said as a prosecutor for 13 years he would grab a file, prosecute an accused offender, get them convicted and pass on the file. He never looked to see what happened in  prison on how effective the experience was at preventing repeat offenders.

Then he started seeing the same individuals in court.

“My failures slapped me in the face,” Vlavianos said of those he prosecuted who had become repeat offenders.

He credited the willingness of various segments of the criminal justice system to work together in San Joaquin County for helping make headway into a problem of repeat offenders that has plagued the state for years.

He pointed to a decision a few years back by the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors to invest $450,000 in a counseling program tailored to specific groups of traits that works with 65 drug users a year. It has significantly reduced the rate of recidivism. Over a 10-year period the cost savings in  terms of criminal justice system expenses going from  arrest and prosecution to incarceration is pegged at $14 million.

Why the judge is confident that the realignment dealing with low level offenders - non-violent drug users and petty thieves among others - can work is a look at statistics that run counter to conventional wisdom when it comes to who commits crime in California.

Statistics complied by the Council of State Governments Justice Center tracking crime in four cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Redlands between 2008 and 2011 shows that 8.5 percent of all crime in those jurisdictions were caused by parolees, 13.9 percent of those on probation, and 77.7 percent of individuals who weren’t supervised by law enforcement.

The data gleaned by the center from 2008 to 2011 noted that 84 percent of all violent crimes were committed by individuals who were outside of the system and not being supervised.

Vlavianos notes that among those unsupervised are those  who were on parole or probation but who no longer were.

The figures jarred him because it went counter to what he believed was the case as a prosecutor. The judge noted that in many cases prisons are teaching low level offenders violent behavior.

He pointed to other statistics that show two or three days behind bars were much more effective than longer periods. A week behind bars for those breaking probation and the chance of them re-offending almost triples. It gets worse as more days are added on.

Vlavianos said that is because in two to three days inmates can’t get comfortable with the routine. After that they are which leads them to relaxing and getting the rest that he said allows them to recharge to return to irresponsible behavior.

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