Thursday, September 24, 2009

California’s Prison Crisis: A Spectrum of Re-active and Pro-active Strategies

Of the myriad of issues facing Californians as we coast into the 2010 gubernatorial campaign season, few have as much fiscal and social impact as the state’s prison crisis. Overcrowded and severely strained in resources, California spends more per inmate than most other large states. In 2007, California spent $46,437 per inmate. Compare that expenditure to Texas, who in that same year spent $19,223 per inmate, and houses nearly the same number of inmates that California does.

In an attempt to slash the state’s prison budget, the legislature and the Governor last month passed AB-14, a narrowly passed bill that would reduce the state prison population by a range of 25,000-40,000 inmates. Savings to general fund are estimated to be $524.5 million. Coupled with savings already passed in the budget revision the Legislature enacted in July, supporters say total corrections savings is $1.2 billion.

A hotly debated issue in both houses of the legislature, this discussion has been at the forefront of the campaign trail. Over the past week, the Sacramento Bee looked at the positions that each gubernatorial candidate is taking on the issue of prison overcrowding.

Jerry Brown, Gavin Newsom, and Tom Campbell have all expressed support for the idea of reworking prison and parole guidelines to divert more inmates into parole and preventing unnecessary incarceration for some parole violators. To reduce solve these issues, Campbell hopes to develop a “triage of parole violators” and concentrate on more violent offenders in prisons

Choosing his words carefully as to avoid straying from his role as 2010 candidate for Attorney General, Jerry Brown has been somewhat avoidant of this issue. Brown declined to comment on specific reform proposals, saying that as attorney general he has to enforce whatever proposals become law. Brown has, however, been critical in the past of a prison system that he said grew as a result of media-driven fears and profiteering by private corrections companies and prison guards.

Both Brown and rival primary opponent Gavin Newsom agree that the focus of legislation has to be on recidivism, which is currently estimated at a whopping 70 percent in California. Both would like to see increased spending on social services to level off the state’s recidivism rate. Newsom told the Bee, "We're simply not preparing these prisoners for life outside of the system, and the issue of re-entry programs becomes critical. Therein lies our big focus, at least mine."

But will efforts which prevent recidivism be enough to solve the overcrowding problem? The proof is in the pudding. UC-Berkeley Law Professor Jonathan Simon says accountability is what is lacking from tough talk on recidivism strategy. Simon speculates, “When we say that we want government to be tough on crime, we mean that we want prison sentences to be long and the rhetoric to be sharp. But we don’t actually hold government accountable for reducing crime.”

Republican candidates Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner have both expressed their opposition to the bill released last month. Whitman and Poizner have rejected the two main precepts of the bill supported by Schwarzenegger and the legislature, namely the early release of inmates, or the reduction of prison sentences of parole violators. Poizner told the Bee, "You have to be a really bad person to get into state prison. So I'm opposed to releasing people who are dangerous, absolutely opposed. That's no way to balance the budget." Whitman stated, “The most important role government has is public safety. It's very important to be consistent.

What Whitman and Poizner fail to recognize is that this reform package is actually a positive step toward keeping violent offenders off our streets. The bill ensures the state’s incarceration efforts are concentrated on the violent criminals and ensures that non-violent offenders have more contact with parole officers. California’s infamous “three-strikes law,” which over the years has become a cross to bear for the state’s justice system, will also see reform in the way of changing some petty crimes to misdemeanor level. The law also establishes an independent Sentencing Commission for the state, comprised of the state’s Chief Justice, Public Defender, Secretary of Corrections, sitting and retired appellate and trial judges, as well as eight additional members to be appointed by the Governor. Should either be elected, Whitman and Poizner will have the opportunity to have some real influence in how sentences are defined visa vise their appointees. This lack of faith in political appointees does not bode well for either.

So where should policymakers focus their efforts after 2010? John Hipp, an associate professor of criminology at the University of California, Irvine, says that most research would suggest a middle ground between the positions of these two candidates. Through research conducted in Sacremento from 2003 to 2006, Hipp found that reports of aggravated assault, robbery and burglary mostly increased in neighborhoods that received parolees. However, crime rates decreased in parolee-receiving neighborhoods with longtime residents and increased more slowly when nonprofit groups and other supportive services were available to parolees. "There's not a blanket statement about parolees and prisons," Hipp said to the Bee. "There's no good way to do it, but by being careful about who you're releasing, you can do it right."

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