The ongoing push and pull about California's so-called prison realignment program has been an abstract political battle among federal, state and local officials.
For the public, the realignment debate -- which is the political term for the shift of inmates out of state prisons and into county jails or to their freedom -- is more a concern about thugs getting sprung from prison early.
The gut-level side of the debate got a boost a few days ago when the California Department of Justice released a 2012 crime report showing that rates of murder, rape, assault, robbery, arson -- the gamut of serious offenses -- were up slightly over the year before. Violent crime rose 2.9 percent.
It's just too soon to lay this at the doorstep of realignment. It's a tiny increase that can be attributed to any number of causes that may have little to do with the changes in the location of California's inmates. Indeed, as law enforcement professionals like to point out, an increase in reported crime doesn't necessarily translate into an increase in crime, just a higher incidence of calling the cops.
But with the specter of realignment hovering over every discussion of crime in California, the numbers can't be ignored.
Gov. Jerry Brown's effort to cut the state prison population to comply with a federal court order to reduce overcrowding and improve inmates' mental-health and medical care needs further examination to see if there is any connection to the crime rate in the real world.
Before anyone rushes to judgment that those prisoners released early have celebrated with a crime spree, it's important to acknowledge that California's reported uptick in violent crime from 2011 to 2012 could be a blip. In the past 20 years, as violent crime in the state has fallen by more than half, there have been single years (2000, 2006) when it ticked up before continuing the down trend.
Maybe 2012 is one of those.
Also, although California's 2012 numbers are worse than the national average, they're actually better than the average for Western states that aren't dealing with a prison crisis.
Even if the statewide rise in violent crime is real, there's no proof it's caused by prison realignment.
But California must find out. It is as foolish to ignore a warning sign as it is to overreact to headlines about crimes committed by convicts placed on probation under the plan. It's good news that the Public Policy Institute of California is joining the effort to study realignment's effects.
A panel of federal judges has ordered the state to trim another 9,600 from its prison rolls by the end of the year. While Brown fights the order, lawmakers argue over what to do, and local law enforcement anticipates more strain.
What's the truth? The officials making these decisions, and most of all the California public, have to know.