California is often portrayed by the media, politicians, and the general public as the state with the highest levels of recidivism in the United States. According to a research presented by the UCIrvine Center for Evidence Based Corrections, the technical rates of offender violation far surpasses that of other states. Three year recidivism rates for ex-convicts range from 27% to 70%. Property offenders have the highest likelihood of reoffending compared to violent crime, public order, drugs offenses, and other non-serious felonies (Fischer, 2005).
These data affirm the thesis that ex-convicts in California have a higher propensity to recidivate. Recidivism rates are highly dependent on the characteristics of every individual reo-offender (Fischer, 2005; Bayer & Pozen, 2004). Several research studies have established that young male offenders who have been members of a gang, have a history of drug abuse, and extensive criminal records; are more likely to recidivate compared to convicts without these characteristics.
The higher rates of recidivism in California may also be attributed to the fact that parolees have comparatively higher rates of being rearrested and reconvicted than other states (Fisher, 2005). These high crime and recidivism rates among juvenile offenders prompted the Californian State Legislature to pass the Schiff-Cardenas Crime Prevention Act in 2000 which was later changed to Juvenile Justice Prevention Act (JJCPA) which laid the framework for the establishment of evidence based programs governing juvenile probations and rehabilitating at risk youths based on specific risk factors which predispose them to offending and reoffending.
In Los Angeles County the administration of JJCPA programs are carried out under the Los Angeles County Probation Department. Contextually, conference community sentencing programs enshrined within the JJCPA provisional framework are firmly grounded in social and ecological research on the causality of juvenile delinquencies. These programs employ multidimensional approaches recognizing the interplay between an individual’s social ecology such as community settings, neighborhood, school, peers, and family as well as a host of other crime producing risk factors in reducing the propensity to recidivate (Fain et al, 2008).
Community sentencing has gained popularity as a cost effective alternative to incarceration for offenses without mandatory sentences, offenders who do not pose a great threat to public safety and order, for offenders with a short criminal history, and for those who have committed a felony. Community based sanctions/sentencing may comprise of working for government or nongovernmental organizations in cleaning public parks, helping in the organization of community events, painting community projects, collecting trash, or even helping in nursing homes.
More importantly, the nature of the community based sanction is proportional to the severity of the crime committed (Ginger, 2003). However, there is paucity of research evidence into the effectiveness of community sentencing. Some authors have posited that community sentencing is more cost effective, humane, and effective in reducing recidivism, and facilitates offenders reintegration into the society compared to the traditional incarceration alternative (Howard, 1998).
While public interest and policy makers have consistently vouched for the introduction of community sentencing programs as better alternatives to incarceration; the empirical analysis of their effectiveness has lagged behind. Laments over the paucity of reliable empirical studies required in policy making are rampant. Again, very few comparative recidivism analyses have attempted to quantity the effectiveness of conference community sentencing for juveniles. This evaluation study investigates the effectiveness of community sentencing in California Los Angeles County.