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Walters: Did past governors hurt or help Brown?

California's four living former governors have filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of current Gov. Jerry Brown's plea for relief from a court order to drop the state's prison population by nearly 10,000 more inmates.

But while trying to support Brown they -- wittingly or otherwise -- have joined critics of realignment, one of Brown's proudest achievements.

Brown claims that he's done enough to reduce prison overcrowding through realignment -- diverting low-level offenders into local jails and supervision -- and that any further reductions could imperil the public by releasing dangerous felons from confinement.

The former governors back Brown, saying that such releases would cause "grave and irreparable harm from increased crime." As evidence, they cite an uptick in crime during 2012, the first full year of realignment. Their brief was written by the anti-realignment Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, using its analysis of FBI crime reports that were issued in early June covering the state's cities with over 100,000 population.

"Between 1993 and 2011, violent crime dropped every year but 2006, when it increased by 1.2 percent," the foundation's president, Michael Rushford, said as the data were released in June. "Last year, violent crime went up 2.9 percent, more than twice the rate of the rest of the country." The assertion runs counter to Brown's contention that realignment has had little or no impact on local crime. And by endorsing it, the four former governors -- Republicans George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democrat Gray Davis -- raise the allegation into a genuine political issue, albeit one that must be considered in context:

While the foundation's arithmetic is accurate, it does not, unto itself, prove a cause-and-effect relationship between realignment and crime.

The 2.9 percent increase in California's violent crime was, as the foundation says, substantially higher than the 1.2 percent national increase but actually lower than the 3.3 percent recorded in all Western states.

There is no consistent pattern among the midsize and large cities in the FBI data. Some saw higher levels of violence -- Oakland and Stockton, most notably -- while in others it declined, including Los Angeles.

Neither is there consistency in the relationship of violent crime to population. Oakland, with 400,000 residents, had twice as much violent crime as San Jose with 2.5 times as much population. Stockton had three times as much as same-sized Santa Ana.

Someone certainly needs to settle the issue of realignment and crime, but just massaging the FBI's numbers doesn't do it. And the four former governors shouldn't have endorsed such a serious assertion without hard evidence of a relationship.

Dan Walters is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee.

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