Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Bad Policies Are Really What’s Driving California’s Huge Prison Costs


By Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, AlterNet

Posted on February 8, 2010, Printed on February 8, 2010

Governor Schwarzenegger’s flippant remark last month that California could reduce prison costs by shipping 20,000 inmates to Mexico is a dangerous sign that he may be giving up on serious corrections reform – even as the dual crises of overcrowding and overspending intensify. His office has now rejected that off-the-cuff scheme, but the governor stands behind another questionable proposal to cut costs through privatization, signaling that he may be taking his eye off of real solutions in favor of political posturing.

To be fair, during his tenure, Governor Schwarzenegger has gone much further than his recent predecessors to propose much-needed reforms – moves supported by corrections experts, academics and advocates alike. Unfortunately, what he’s been unable to muster is the political strategy to achieve such a policy shift in Sacramento.

The Legislature was able to pass some prison and parole reforms last year after a significant effort for which they deserve some credit. Unfortunately, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office doesn’t expect even those modest reforms to amount to much. The state budget assumed an inmate reduction of 18,500 in 2009-10 rising to 25,000 in 2010-11. The LAO now anticipates the inmate reduction to reach just 1,600 – or 1% of the prison population – in 2009-10 and 11,800 in 2010-11.

There are two very distinct and crucial measures of the feasibility of any population reduction plan: Can it be done safely? And can it be done politically?

The answer to the former is absolutely. It is simply not true that California needs to keep 170,000 people in state prisons on any given day and another 120,000+ Californians on parole. This isn’t my opinion; it’s the opinion reached by decades of research and expert analysis. It’s also the experience of other states. Several states – including New York – have seen their crime rates fall even faster than California’s while they have simultaneously reduced their prison populations.

Even as California struggles with prison overcrowding, Colorado, Kansas, New York and Michigan, among others, are either closing prisons or struggling with what to do about so many empty cells.

It’s worth noting that, even in California, per-capita incarceration rates have typically been much lower than they are now. The state prison population has grown by over 500% since 1980, rising from under 30,000 to about 170,000 at the end of 2009. In the same period, according to federal statistics, the state population grew by just 55%.

One in 161 Californian adults is now in prison and one in 94 adults in the state is either in prison or on parole.

Who are all these people? Too many of them were convicted of petty offenses, what in prior years were misdemeanors that landed someone in jail for six months to a year. Now even petty offenses – including stealing a car radio or being in possession of a tiny amount of drugs – can land you in state prison for years at a cost to the taxpayer of $49,000 per inmate per year. If an inmate is older or has a health problem, the cost rises significantly. Most other states handle this level of offense at the local level.

By opting for a policy of sending low-level offenders to state prison, California is far out of step with other states – and out of time.

Independent of any privatization plans or other attempts to lower correctional officers’ wages, cutting prison costs must include reforms to sentencing, probation and parole with respect to non-violent offenders, especially drug offenders, to bring California law into conformity with other states and Western democracies. To talk about cost cutting without addressing one of the fundamental drivers of rising costs is misguided and short-sighted.

The LAO recognized in its most recent report on the corrections budget, that “over the past two decades, prison costs have increased largely as a result of increases in the inmate and parolee populations, federal court orders to improve inmate health care, and negotiated increases in compensation for correctional employees.”[1]

Reducing the number of prisoners – not just lowering the cost of imprisoning this massive population – must be the state’s priority. It’s a moral, public health, public safety and fiscal imperative. It’s also what the federal judges have demanded.

As for the second measure of feasibility for any population reduction plan (Can it be done politically?), I’m not the only one hoping Sacramento will give us a new answer this year.

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli is deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance in Southern California.

View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/145580/

Friday, February 5, 2010

Editorial: Don't let hype kill options to prison

 Feb. 5, 2010 - 12:00 am

Here's a dirty little secret: Most inmates in California state prisons and county jails eventually get out and return to communities.

Here's another dirty little secret: For years, overcrowded county jails have been releasing 9,100 pretrial inmates a month. They've also been releasing 9,300 sentenced inmates per month before they complete their sentences.

Something's got to give.

Before a new law took effect on Jan. 25, California had a system of good-time credits that allowed inmates to shave time off their sentences for good behavior and for participating in certain work, education and drug or alcohol programs. The aim is to encourage good behavior and reward self-improvement efforts, as well as reduce overcrowding in prisons and jails.

Last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law that would expand good-time credits, a long-overdue reform. It took effect Jan. 25. Crime victims groups and others, however, already are stoking fears of a massive new crime wave.

Here's a reality check.

No state prisoners have yet been released under the new law, not one. Credit enhancements for state prisoners only began to accrue on Jan. 25. And, for state prisoners, release will take place only after intense review of each prisoner. The state expects 6,500 prisoners will be released early in a trickle over time.

A hullabaloo ensued, however, when 21 counties, including Sacramento, interpreted the new law as allowing them to apply expanded good time retroactively to jail inmates. Given budget constraints and overcrowding, they jumped on this opportunity without preparing adequately for it.

The predictable result: One Sacramento jail inmate who was set free 16 days early made his way to a drop-in mental health program for homeless people, allegedly lunged at a worker and was arrested on a charge of attempted rape. Unfortunately, the usual groups that oppose the new law are using this incident to discredit it.

If this inmate had been released 16 days later, would it have made a difference? Not likely. What might have made a difference: The Sacramento Sheriff's Department should have given a heads-up to city police and others. This didn't happen. Sheriff John McGinness acknowledges the error.

Sacramento County released about 50 more people in a single day than it would have under the old law, a number that officials expect to flatten out over time.

As McGinness told us, "This is not a humongous difference. … The good people of the Golden State ought to get used to the idea of reduced rate of incarceration for lawlessness, because the cost is becoming prohibitive."

Californians need to make better use of cost-effective alternatives to incarceration, such as work release, electronic monitoring, drug court intensive supervision and day reporting. It's time to get smart on crime instead of resorting to alarmism.
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