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Agencies at odds over counting new crimes
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SACRAMENTO  (AP) — California’s attorney general has released a statewide definition of recidivism — a term used for ex-cons who commit new crimes — that conflicts with one being developed by a corrections-related board overseen by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The disagreement is important because it will help determine whether the governor’s sweeping changes to the criminal justice system are considered a success. The emerging conflict also has the potential to create confusion among California’s local law enforcement agencies.

Attorney General Kamala Harris sent district attorneys, probation chiefs and local law enforcement agencies her proposed statewide definition Thursday.

She wants to count any ex-convict who is charged with a new felony or misdemeanor within three years of release for a previous offense. She also is unveiling a new data collection system based on her definition.

But Brown’s Board of State and Community Corrections is required by state law to develop its own definition of recidivism. The proposal to be considered by the board during its Nov. 13 meeting would count only offenders who are convicted of a new felony or misdemeanor within three years — not just arrested and charged.

That narrower definition would significantly lower California’s officially reported recidivism rate, one of the goals of Brown’s criminal justice law.

The law, commonly referred to as realignment, took effect in 2011 and sends lower-level offenders to county jails instead of state prisons. It was intended as a way to comply with federal court orders to reduce the state’s inmate population.

Officials could not immediately say how many people are charged in California each year with a misdemeanor or felony but never convicted.

Counting those who commit new crimes is crucial to gauging whether crime is increasing or decreasing since California began keeping less serious offenders in county jails. Before Brown’s realignment law, California’s recidivism rate was 67 percent, one of the nation’s highest.

Counties that are dealing with the influx of prisoners since Brown’s law took effect have conflicting definitions of recidivism, or in some cases no definition at all.

A survey of 540 law enforcement officials by Harris’ state Department of Justice found 60 percent had no formal definition and one-third made no attempt to track how often criminals committed new crimes.

“Universally defining recidivism is a fundamentally important issue if we are to be smart on crime,” Harris said in her letter to law enforcement officials. “However, California lacks any uniform or standard way to measure the rate of individuals who re-commit crimes.”

Harris also is announcing a standardized way for local agencies to track recidivism, called the California Recidivism Index. The information would let her department track how quickly criminals are charged with new crimes.

Linda Penner, chairwoman of the Board of State and Community Corrections and Brown’s public safety liaison, said the Justice Department and any other agency is free to develop its own policy, but that the board’s definition will be the one that counts. “There’s just one that is based on statute,” Penner said.

Attorney general spokesman David Beltran said his office’s version is based on the work of law enforcement officers and prosecutors.

“The attorney general’s definition provides an accurate representation of recidivism in our state in a data-driven way,” he said in an emailed statement.

The group that represents chief probation officers supports the correction board’s position, while the county sheriffs’ association wants to work with both sides.

“It certainly puts us in the middle,” said association president Adam Christianson, the sheriff of Stanislaus County. “We’re not taking sides. ... We’re going to make this work.”