(I want to welcome SF’s District Attorney Kamala Harris. – promoted by Brian Leubitz)
States across our country are facing budget deficits. California is projected to begin next fiscal year with a deficit of nearly 25 billion dollars, equaling one fourth of the state’s entire general fund. Over 10 billion of that general fund supports corrections and law enforcement. In this fiscal crisis, there is no denying the facts: tough budget times are here for public safety agencies. As the District Attorney for the City and County of San Francisco, I am personally familiar with the difficult circumstances we face. Without a significant shift in local and state practices, we can predict that shrinking law enforcement and corrections funding will result in higher crime rates, less support for victims, and fewer offenders being held accountable. If ever there was a time to think outside the box and break with the failed approaches of the past, the time is now. We need to do something different.
In San Francisco, I have developed a smart on crime approach: we must be tough on serious and violent offenders while we get just as tough on the root causes of crime. In my office, we have raised felony conviction rates and sent more violent offenders to state prison, at the same time we have launched innovative, cost effective approaches to reduce recidivism, truancy, and childhood trauma. With a genuine investment in breaking cycles of crime, we can improve public safety at the same time that we save precious public resources.
EDIT by Brian: See the flip
Reentry: Why it Matters to Law Enforcement
Over the last thirty years, our prison population has soared. In 1980, California had a prison population of about 24,000 in a state of 24 million. Today we have an inmate population of 172,000 out of 36 million people. This means that since 1980, our population has grown by 50 % while our prison population has grown 617%.
Today, the majority of those inmates are not first-time offenders. Each year, approximately 70 percent of those released from California prisons commit another offense, resulting in the highest recidivism rate in the nation. These repeat offenses are preventable crimes that claim more victims and harm communities’ quality of life. It costs an estimated $10,000 to prosecute just one felony case, and about $47,000 per year to house just one inmate in prison. Every time an inmate is released and commits a new crime, local and state jurisdictions pay those costs over and over again. To keep our communities safe and use public money wisely, we must ensure that people coming out of the criminal justice system become productive citizens and stay out.
Four years ago my office pioneered a model reentry initiative called "Back on Track" to reduce recidivism among nonviolent offenders. Back on Track combines accountability with opportunity to ensure that first-time nonviolent drug offenders are held accountable, stop committing crime and become self-sufficient. In Back on Track, offenders plead guilty and commit to strict court supervision as they complete an intensive personal responsibility program. They get trained for a job, go back to school, get current with child support, enroll in parenting classes, and become positive contributors in their communities. The program encompasses swift sanctions for making bad choices and clear incentives for good ones. As a result, less than 10 percent of Back on Track graduates have re-offended compared to a 54 percent recidivism rate statewide for the same population of offenders. We have achieved this success at a fraction of the cost of traditional corrections approaches. Back on Track costs about $5,000 annually per participant, compared to $35,000 to 47,000 for jail or prison.
To graduate, Back on Track participants must be employed or in school. The program has been selected as a national model by the National District Attorney’s Association and at least two jurisdictions have replicated the initiative. Back on Track demonstrates that preventing recidivism is both viable and cost-effective.
Truancy: Keeping Children in School Means Keeping Our Streets Safe
In 2007, after another year of high homicide rates in San Francisco, I asked my staff to review the victims’ histories to assess trends. We found that over the prior four years, 94% of homicide victims under the age of 25 were high school drop outs. We then reviewed SF public schools data and found that over 5,000 students were habitually or chronically truant each year, and nearly half of those kids were in elementary school. These are the kids on route to becoming high school drop outs.
In response, I joined with the San Francisco Unified School District to launch a citywide truancy initiative focused on getting elementary and middle school kids back in school. As the city’s chief prosecutor, I sent every parent in the district a letter explaining that I was prepared to prosecute parents if they broke the law by keeping their children out of school. I was surprised to discover that many parents didn’t know that California law makes education mandatory for children under the age of 18. Thousands of parents attended informational meetings on truancy after receiving the letter, and we fielded hundreds of calls from parents who had questions or needed help.
We also held face-to-face "D.A. Mediation" meetings with over 2,000 parents. Suddenly, the principals didn’t need to work so hard to convince parents to take seriously the consequences of keeping their child from school because a prosecutor was in the room. Through these mediations, we met parents in need of help to get their kids in school. One mother of three, for example, was homeless and holding down two jobs. We connected her to services so she could do what she wanted to do – be a good mother and put her children in school.
Mediations resulted in significant progress for most of the parents. Still, some continued to fail. In these cases, my office filed criminal charges. The children of these parents, some as young as six years old, had missed as many as 80 days of school out of a 180 day school year. Once we filed criminal charges, things started to change. Those parents report to a Truancy Court that combines consequences and support services to make sure that parents get their children in school.
Since we started this initiative, truancy rates for elementary school kids in San Francisco have dropped by 23 percent. And it did not take millions of dollars, bureaucratic red tape, or a decade to see results. It only took genuine commitment and a willingness to shake up the status quo.
What starts out as chronic truancy makes a child far more likely to end up dropping out of school, becoming a victim, or getting arrested. Taking swift corrective action now will reduce the likelihood of harmful and costly consequences later.
Childhood Trauma: Breaking the Silence to Help Children and Youth
Last year in San Francisco, a teenage boy was gunned down while waiting outside a school for a ride. His senseless murder was witnessed by dozens of young students who were outside at the time. Months later, many of these youth had not accessed mental health support to recover from what they saw. Worse still, for some, it was likely not the first time they had witnessed violence. Some young people come from homes where violence is the norm, while others see violence in their neighborhoods far too frequently. The impact of repeated exposure to violence on children is enormous: they can’t concentrate in school, they’re detached, or they act-up and misbehave.
Like soldiers at war, children are highly likely to suffer from trauma from repeated exposure to violence. And like soldiers coming home, they often suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Unfortunately, many of these children go undiagnosed or are misdiagnosed and thereby not treated appropriately. Worse still, children repeatedly traumatized by violence at an early age are more likely to fall through the cracks and become either victims or perpetrators of violence later in life.
Studies have shown that up to 35 percent of children and youth exposed to community violence develop PTSD. Exposure to community violence affects everything from a child’s sleep, to their school success, to the physical development of their brains.
In the District Attorney’s Office, we often see the needs of children from distressed families or neighborhoods go untreated. To address these unmet needs, last year we joined with California State Senator Mark Leno to craft ground-breaking legislation to provide funding for mental health counseling for traumatized children and youth. Signed into law last year, our bill allows children who witness community violence to access up to $5,000 for therapy and mental health support.
When we look at children growing up in tough environments, we need to see them through a prism instead of a plate glass window. Left unaddressed, their complex and difficult surroundings can overwhelm their minds and harm their chances for future success. If we can recognize their needs and get timely help, we can substantially increase life prospects for these children before it’s too late.
What Needs to Happen Can Happen
These are just a few examples of what can be done to improve public safety and break the cycle of crime. Being smart on crime requires changing our thinking. Albert Einstein once said, "The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them." The State of California is at an economic crossroads that demands new approaches. I am confident that we can meet that demand through a long-term strategy of responsive, preventative and evidence-based "smart on crime" approaches, thereby ensuring a better and safer future for all of us.
This post was initially published at ACSblog: http://www.acslaw.org/node/13582