The outcry over Governor Schwarzenegger’s proposal last week to release 22,000 prisoners as part of a budget deficit reduction plan has drawn some predictable responses—mostly expressions of horror and fear mongering ala Willie Horton about criminals coming to your neighborhood. It came as a shock to Assembly Republicans—and taking a look at what the Governor had to say repeatedly last year about prisoner releases, this is actually very understandable. In fact, the Governor’s proposal has been criticized by leading Democrats such as Speaker of the Assembly Fabian Nunez as being irresponsible and he voiced his opposition last week shortly after the Governor spoke.
The reality is that some prisoners will have to be released early and sentences need to be brought more in line with what is needed to protect Californians. This is either going to happen through a Federal Court order because of overcrowding or through action by the state—in the form of executive orders of the Governor or legislation. Aside from the numbers and categories of criminals to be released early or diverted from the prisons, the biggest flaw in what the Governor has put forth is that those being released will be put on summary probation—meaning none of them will be supervised by a parole agent and in the main they will not receive the help needed to prevent them from committing new crimes and being back in the prison system—if there is room for them in the jails or prisons in the state. While from a financial standpoint we may be saving the $40,000 per year that it costs to incarcerate a criminal, it is penny wise and pound foolish not to spend some fraction of that amount to counsel, supervise, and provide what is needed to keep many of them from returning.
The legislature gavels into a special session today to act on the fiscal emergency declared by the Governor and find ways to deal with a $3 billion shortfall the state faces in the year that ends June 30, 2008. One of the areas they must look at is the ballooning budget of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The rise in this area of the state budget has been meteoric for decades—with a 12% increase in 2006 alone.
And it went up at an even higher rate last year. 2007’s prison construction bill, AB 900, means we will spend an additional $7.4 billion on top of the current annual operating budget of more than $10 billion. A San Francisco Chronicle news article warned last May that: “Based on current spending trends, California’s prison budget will overtake spending on the state’s universities in five years. No other big state in the country spends close to as much on its prisons compared with universities.”
The 45 days allowed by Proposition 58 for the legislature to act in this special session and the urgency of the situation may bring about some thoughtful policy in this area or it may prove an impossibility and devolve into a new orgy of demagoguery and what our Governor calls “Kabuki theater”—a stylized and ritualized play on the stage of politics where our elected leaders try to prove they are tougher on crime. Given how we have gotten into this mess, with the constant one-upmanship of over 1000 laws passed ratcheting up sentences for all sorts of crimes since 1977 when California switched to a determinate sentencing law scheme (fixed terms rather than leaving some discretion in sentencing and releasing criminals with an eye towards rehabilitation), I am somewhat dubious. California is now responsible for 1 out of every 5 new inmates in the country in prison. Some Republicans in the legislature still don’t get it. Tomorrow, during the regular session, the Assembly Public Safety Committee will take up at least two proposals to increase sentences and add to that list of 1000.
We haven’t seen, yet, the actual language of what the Governor is putting forth, although there should be specifics in the bill that was transmitted to the legislature along with his proclamation of a fiscal emergency under Proposition 58. But if press reports and what Department of Corrections officials are saying are at all accurate, it sounds a bit like Jonathan’s Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”
From last week’s San Jose Mercury News:
“There is going to be a population that does not spend one day in prison,” corrections spokesman Oscar Hidalgo said.
“The department said those convicted of drug offenses, drunken driving, white collar or property crimes such as vehicle theft, grand theft or receiving stolen property likely would serve little or no time.”
James Tilton, Schwarzenegger’s Director of the California Department of Corrections, according to the Sacramento Bee: “said the releases will only be available to inmates classified as non-serious and non-violent who are not sex offenders – including their prior convictions. Qualifying inmates will be placed on summary parole, meaning no supervision, and can be returned to custody only if they get convicted of a new crime and are sentenced to more than 20 months.” [Emphasis added] No time at all if the sentences is less than 20 months? I have a hard time believing this is actually what the Governor is proposing.
While we wait for the details of the Governor’s bill, which will be scrutinized by the legislature and undoubtedly modified, there needs to be some review of what we have known for some time so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.
Take a look at “Why Prison Reform Doesn’t Happen” in which former California State Senator Jackie Speier gives this advice:
“Given that 95 percent of inmates will be released from prison within five years, it is critical that rehabilitation efforts affect as many inmates as possible. But, only seven percent of inmates receive alcohol treatment although 42 percent have a high need for treatment. Worse yet, only 2.5 percent of inmates with a serious need for drug treatment actually receive treatment during their time in prison. Again, California recycles rather than rehabilitates men and women who have broken the law.”
Consider what some of the experts in criminology have had to say in “Stanford Report and Recommendations Show Need for a Sentencing Commission in California to Complete Reform Already Under Way”, building on recommendations of many prior reports including that of former prosecutor and Republican Governor George Deukmejian. Pass AB 160 or SB 110—now on the floors of both houses of the legislature—to create a sentencing commission.
“The number of released prisoners has increased in California more than in any other state in the nation. In 1980, 11,759 prisoners returned to their communities; less than 25 years later that number is 113,000, an increase of almost 1000%. In the Golden State, 65% of parolees end up back in prison within three years; nationally that figure is only 35%.
“Many released prisoners are ill-equipped to live successful lives. Too often, they have low levels of job training and literacy. As a result of incarceration, they are disenfranchised, barred from public housing, and refused jobs. Facing hopelessness and obstacles, a parolee will often violate probation or commit a new crime and land back in prison.
“The intent of punishing rather than rehabilitating was to “get tough on crime.” But in reality, aggressive incarceration without effective reentry programs is inhumane for the prisoner, unsafe for our communities, and extremely expensive for all taxpayers.
“How do we correct a parole system the California Little Hoover Commission called in 2003, “a billion dollar failure?” Successful reentry depends on having a system of services—housing, jobs, mentoring, meals, addiction treatment, and mental health services—in place and immediately available to prisoners returning home. This can be achieved at the community level through the development and implementation of a data-driven, evidence-based strategic plan.”
Consider what other states are doing about prisons: looking at rehabilitation.
Take a look at the San Francisco Chronicle article from 2005, “California’s system for parolees called ineffective revolving door”. The time line at the end of this excellent article is very telling of the history we must not repeat:
“1976: 21,088 total prison population, 2,233 parolees returned to prison.
1977 California adopts fixed sentencing, reducing parole board’s role in determining when inmates are ready to be released.
1990 A blue-ribbon commission says the prison system compromises public safety by relying so heavily on punishment and recommends drug treatment and work programs for parolees.
1991 Facing a budget crisis, Gov. Pete Wilson orders that parolees who test positive for drug use be sent to treatment instead of prison.
1994 Wilson’s parole policy is attacked by rival in governor’s race for allowing dangerous parole violators to avoid prison and commit new crimes.
2003 Little Hoover Commission calls California’s parole system a “billion-dollar failure,” noting that 48 states do a better job helping released convicts re-enter society and stay out of prison.
2004 Schwarzenegger administration announces new programs for parolees. A year later, plagued by poor planning, they are dropped.
2004: 163,939 total prison population, 76,565 parolees returned to prison”
I’m glad to see a change in the Governor’s own rhetoric in the last couple of weeks and his coming to grips with the reality of the state’s swelling prison population. Although he really didn’t answer the question on Thursday when asked if his prison release proposal was budgetary or otherwise, this is what he had to say:
“Q: If the people are sending enough money to Sacramento for state spending, the inmate — the early inmate release proposal then, is that more of a philosophical thing on your part than budgetary?
“GOVERNOR: No. I think first of all, as you know, we are having parole reforms already on the way. Second of all, we have institutions that were built for 100,000 people and there 172,500 people in there. I think the federal judges are breathing down our neck and saying that we’re going to put a cap on you, 140,000 prisoners, that’s all you can have in there. So there are all kinds of problems developing.
“Now, it happens to be also at the same time that we have a budget situation where we want to cut across the board. And so therefore when we say across the board, even though some people criticize that, I say that was the fair way to do it, and we really went after every program. Now, of course there are programs that one party enjoys that we are cutting, this program and that program, and another party will enjoy different programs that we are cutting, and one party will be dissatisfied with one program cutting, and all of this will happen.
“This is a budget that doesn’t please everybody, I know that for sure. And you will have people coming out of this room afterwards and spinning why this is all terrible. But the bottom line is, I think this is the fairest way to go, and we wanted to show and send a signal that we don’t cut back on what is popular amongst Republicans, or cut back of what’s popular amongst Democrats. It was across the board.”
Regardless of the reason for his conversion, this is a far cry from what one paper described last September as “trying to whip up opposition to any move by the courts to release thousands of prison inmates before they’ve completed their sentences.”
Around that time, the Governor’s office put out releases such as this one: “Schwarzenegger Joins with Assembly Republicans, Law Enforcement Officials to Warn of Dangers if Felons are Released into Communities”:
“Public safety is the most important thing to us all, and our communities have the most at stake at this. And this is why we must do absolutely everything that we can to prevent the federal three-judge panel from ordering criminals to be released early out of our prisons. We have sheriffs here, district attorneys, probation officers, Assembly Members, and all of these people think exactly the way we think, and they know exactly what we know, that releasing criminals back into our streets will be a public safety disaster, and it is absolutely unacceptable.
“So I fully support their effort. Public safety has always been my No. 1 priority, and I’m proud to support local law enforcement. We are doing everything, absolutely everything we can, to protect our communities and to make sure that no one is released early because of overcrowding. The only ones that should be released is if they have served their term and if they are safe to go out into society.” [Emphasis added]
One can see the charges next year by demagogues. They will switch their ire from Federal Court Judges to those running for re-election. Just take a look at the Assembly Republican page that begins with the question: “How many dangerous criminals will be on the loose in your neighborhood?” and lots of scary photographs.
It will take Profiles in Courage for Democrats (since probably no Republicans will join in) to heed the words of Democratic President pro Tem Don Perata on the Senate floor last April when the prison construction bill was passed:
“So we’re jammed up in this situation right now because we have fallen in love with one of the most undocumented, nonevidentiary beliefs. And that is somehow you get safer if you put more people in jail.”
Our elected leaders will need to hear from those of us who would like to see the unaffordable and unworkable status quo of the prison-industrial complex challenged. Think about this and contact the Governor and your legislator. The 45 day clock is ticking.