The ‘Smart on Crime’ effort seeks to spark changes in the local criminal justice system
The Santa Cruz County Jail earns an average of two stars (out of five) on the popular review website Yelp. Comments range from the serious—“This jail lies in stark contrast [with] the supposed basic rights we are all afforded”—to the facetious. “The jail cooks better than my ex-wife ever did,” one user writes. Yes, it’s absurd to review a jail like you would a coffee shop. It’s a jail, and you don’t get to choose to take your business elsewhere. But if a business garnered similar reviews as the county jail has, the owners of the business would, one hopes, work hard to make changes.
In a way, that is what is happening in the county right now. Arguing that the current incarceration system is inhumane, ineffective and expensive, local politicians, scholars, and leaders are working to find different approaches.
A new “Smart on Crime” initiative is underway to help direct a shift in the local criminal justice system away from purely punitive measures and toward what leaders describe as “evidence-based practices” meant to reduce prison overcrowding, save money, and help lessen the rate of recidivism, or the rate of return to jail. (Our county’s prisoners will return to jail an average of 6.5 times in their adults lives, according to the Probation Department.)
“Santa Cruz is a good laboratory for trying some new things, and what we’ve tried in the past has been successful,” says County Supervisor John Leopold. “But it will be evidence-based, driven by data and input by the public.”
There are two important catalysts for this effort. The first is Assembly Bill 109—the “realignment” portion of Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2011-2012 state budget, which has been signed into law and will soon devolve responsibility for certain criminals (such as parole violators and people convicted of non-violent crimes) to county jails. Proponents of the bill argue that local governments can do a better job than the state at housing and rehabilitating criminals who have committed non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual crimes and who have sentences of three years or less. But it’s not just about what’s best for the criminal but also what’s best for state coffers. The state is broke and county jails tend to be cheaper to run than state prisons. According to the Probation Department, the county’s cost is about $77 per day, per prisoner, while state prisoners cost about $129 per day, according to the state’s Legislative Analysts Office.
The other catalyst is a recent Supreme Court decision that deemed California’s overcrowded state prisons to be in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.” In a 5-4 vote, the court upheld an order for the state to reduce its prisoner population by more than 30,000. Although details are foggy as to how exactly this will happen, there is the potential that prisoners could be transferred to county jails, putting additional pressure on the local system.
However, Santa Cruz jails are already working at over capacity. “We are full,” County Sheriff Phil Wowak said at the first Smart on Crime event, held at Live Oak Elementary School on Monday, May 23. “Today, 495 inmates are in custody and there is space for 450.” The challenge will be to prevent local detention facilities from suffering the same overcrowding problems as the state prisons have suffered, and to do all of this in the framework of tight budgets.
Many believe there is a lot at stake here. Craig Haney, a UC Santa Cruz psychology professor and the director of the UCSC Program in legal studies, has spent more than 30 years studying the effects of incarceration on prisoners. During the event, Haney outlined the negative psychological effects of dangerous, overcrowded incarceration. “People learn dependency on the institutional structure,” he said. He argued that imprisonment can also cause, among other things, distrust, psychological distancing, and a diminished sense of self worth. This, Haney argued, can make it a struggle for prisoners wanting to transition back into society.
One strategy to address overcrowding is to expand alternatives to incarceration for certain low-level or technical offenders. There is precedent for this, as Santa Cruz jails have been severely overcrowded before. Back in 2004, the county’s main jail was operating at 30 percent over capacity. Officials responded to this by implementing pretrial services to release certain individuals before trial, using community-based alternatives to incarceration, such as work programs, and employing the use of electronic ankle bracelets. Prison populations have trended downward since these actions were put into effect.
These alternatives to incarceration can save the county money: The Probation Department estimates these measures saved Santa Cruz County more than $800,000 in 2010 alone. However, these measures also raise questions about public safety—a tricky thing to quantify, given that it is nearly impossible to measure how the alternatives might be affecting crime rates, whether positively or negatively. According to Chief Probation Officer Scott MacDonald, there are too many factors contributing to the level of crime in our community to be able to tell for sure. For now, the adult crime rate is more or less stable, and MacDonald remains confident. “We can do more to safely reduce population, and I’m confident that we will show good public safety results,” he tells Good Times.
Another strategy suggested at the event is to implement or expand programs to prevent individuals from committing new crimes once they are out. “Sixty-seven to 70 percent of folks that come to our jail system will return within three years,” says Sheriff Wowak. These numbers are comparable to the rest of the state. “It’s because we don’t do a good enough job in teaching corrective behavior to keep them from coming back into the system,” Wowak adds.
Training people not to commit new crimes is seen as an important component of reducing the recidivism rate (and saving county resources). Community based programs are seen as a way to address the issues that lead people to land in jail and provide resources once they are out. One notable program, Gemma, works with women to provide housing and employment programs after incarceration. They have seen a 70 percent reduction in recidivism. Other programs have worked to give counseling to repeat substance abusers in lieu of prison time, and Santa Cruz was recently awarded a $750,000 federal grant to be put toward reducing recidivism, which was used to form the Research-Based Rehabilitation and Reentry program, or R5, earlier this year.
The first Smart on Crime event was packed, accompanied by a palpable sense that the attendees are hungry for change. “This has been a destructive system for a long time,” said community member Martine Watkins. “This is long overdue.”
Exactly what the future will look like is still up in the air, however, as the state budget issues have not been resolved and AB109 will not go into effect until funding is made available. But leaders hope they can get a head start by talking about these issues and bringing them to the community.
“Next year, $13 million is being requested for a system that I think we would all agree does not produce the outcomes that warrant that level of investment,” Leopold says. “This is not a left/right issue. This is about what works and what doesn’t work.”’
A second Smart on Crime event is planned for the fall. Community members can provide feedback on the Smart on Crime Facebook page.