Gov. Jerry Brown

State Capitol

Sacramento, CA

Dear Gov. Brown:

Over a long career in journalism, I have struggled to limit the kudzu that creeps into political stories -- words like "infrastructure," "mitigate" and "bargaining unit."

Nothing has made me wail and rend my garments more than a word that touches the safety of Californians -- your plan of "realignment'' for prison inmates.

Put aside the definition momentarily. Consider the power of the word to hasten the demise of journalism. Confronted with "realignment," a reader's first impulse is to flee to the obits or the bird cage.

If the beleaguered subscriber stays long enough to glance at the story, he or she might think of car wheels.

Right. I need to get my wheels aligned. The tires are wearing on the left. Then more urgent issues intrude, like whether Kim Kardashian should include figs in her diet.

As you know, governor, "realignment'' is the word for your effort to reduce the prison population by directing lesser felons to county jails and local probation authorities.

I point no fingers. But I embrace conspiracy theories when I ponder a word like this. It comes from the same cursed family as "incursion" (invasion), "surgical strike" (bombing) and "enhanced interrogation techniques" (torture).

Ugly truths

These words lend a technical sheen to ugly truth. A Wall Street Journal piece recently profiled law firms that were "adjusting" attorneys' pay.

That meant cutting their pay. Unless you work for the Santa Clara Valley Water District, the Golden Spigot, adjustments go down, not up.

Gov. Brown, I don't pretend to be an expert on whether your new policy on inmates contributes to crime, though I would be surprised if it did not have some impact.

Driven by the need to reduce the state prison population to satisfy a court order, your policy could also rectify the plight of nonviolent offenders who don't really belong in state prison. I'll give you that.

All that should be a matter of earnest back-and-forth. But the word "realignment" converts what should be a lively debate into a massive outbreak of sleeping sickness. It will magnify health care costs just as Obamacare begins.

Political stakes

A political consultant, Garry South, defined the stakes for you best. "When you engage in a very large-scale program of turning people out of prison, whether they go out on the streets under supervised parole or whether they go into the local jails, there's a huge risk involved,'' he said recently.

So what's my journalistic answer? I'm not sure I've got a good one, except to ban the use of the word "realignment" in headlines or the first five paragraphs of stories.

I've considered "diverting offenders from state prison to county jails and local supervision." At 11 words, a tad long. "Sending bad guys to the pokey, not the Big House?" Catchier, but incomplete.

Maybe you can do better. We may kill a few more trees to deal honestly with this topic. Meantime, I have to fix my wheels and think about figs.

Contact Scott Herhold at 408-275-0917 or sherhold@mercurynews.com. Twitter.com/scottherhold.