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Los Angeles law enforcement tells state watchdog the struggles of prison realignment

Little Hoover Commission hears testimony at hearing in Los Angeles on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013.
Rina Palta/KPCC
Little Hoover Commission hears testimony at hearing in Los Angeles on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013.

A state watchdog agency visiting California's largest county got an earful on the state's prison realignment policy Thursday.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, L.A. Probation Chief Jerry Powers and a host of community advocates addressed the Little Hoover Commission during a hearing on Assembly Bill 109. 

Law enforcement's message was one of perseverance in the face of a massive onslaught of new responsibilities. In 2011, realignment brought thousands of ex-prisoners under the supervision of county probation departments and thousands of new offenders into L.A.'s jails.

"We are still trying to get up to speed," Powers said. 

One of the big questions of realignment is how historic lows might respond to a shakeup in California's criminal justice machinery. For most of the state, said LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, things are not looking great.

"There are 12 major cities in California that have a population of a quarter of a million or more," Beck said. "Only one of them had a crime decrease, every other one had a crime increase. Many of the chiefs of police in those cities claim realignment was the cause."

The exception to the rule, Beck said, has been Los Angeles, where crime continues to decline. The major difference and lesson for other localities, according to Beck, is that L.A. has been proactive about its new responsibilities. In the early days of realignment, for instance, Beck assigned 150 LAPD officers to check up on ex-prisoners who otherwise might not face much supervision.

"If local law enforcement doesn't step up to fill these gaps, then we will be called upon to use resources in other ways in response to crime," Beck said. "It's much better to be in front of it than behind it."

Community advocates, however, argued that LAPD has been overly aggressive in cracking down on ex-prisoners. 

"They're not doing anything to help people with the transition," said Diana Zuniga, statewide coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget. "The training at LAPD and the Sheriff''s Department is not teaching them to treat people as people."

Questioned by commissioners about the civil liberties implications of having police officers, who are pure law enforcement, do the jobs of probation officers, who historically have a more social service bent, Beck said realignment came fast and the city reacted with the tools it had.

"I had a hammer, so I used it," Beck said.

Other criticisms of the county's handling of realignment also focused on the balance between law enforcement and rehabilitation.

Troy Vaughn, of Lamp Community, a group that helps the mentally ill & homeless, said leaders in Los Angeles County talk a lot about the need for substance abuse programs and rehabilitation — until it comes time to dish out dollars.

"We want to provide these services, but we can't do it for free," Vaughn said. In L.A. County, he said, about 20 percent of realignment funds have gone to rehabilitation programs — the rest to law enforcement. 

Vaughn and others also expressed concern over how use of the county's realignment funds is tracked and monitored. 

The Little Hoover Commission will eventually issue a report on their findings and recommendations. The group next convenes in Sacramento Oct. 24.