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October 4, 2010

"California's bloated prison system threatens public safety"

The title of this post is the headline of this commentary in the Sacramento Bee authored by Jeanne Woodford, former director of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and former warden at San Quentin. Here is how it begins:

Public safety is a bipartisan concern. The corrections budget must be, too.

California's spending on corrections has risen unchecked for too long and with too little to show for it. As every other area of the state budget absorbs significant cuts, corrections remains the exception even as recidivism rates exceed 70 percent. Despite some attempts to cut back, prison costs have actually increased during this severe economic downturn. The state Legislature must not let one more year go by without righting this wrong.

Public safety is threatened –- not enhanced –- by a massive, inefficient prison system haphazardly constructed through piecemeal legislation and ill-conceived ballot initiatives. The 160,000-plus state prison population is far from static, with 120,000 people returning to communities each year and just as many taking their places behind bars.  Two-thirds of people released from prison are sent back within three years.

Californians aren't getting their money's worth.

October 4, 2010 at 06:50 AM | Permalink


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The idea that public safety will be improved by having more criminals on the street instead of in jail is preposterous on its face. If that were the case, then we might as well go the whole nine yards and REALLY improve public safety by releasing EVERYONE.

But if that were not enough, the author undermines her own thesis by conceding that, "Two-thirds of people released from prison are sent back within three years." Evidently these people are not as socialized as the author would have us believe in order to buy the notion that putting them on the street is a good idea.

I agree that Californians aren't getting their money's worth. When, for example, it takes 28 years to execute a killer whose guilt no one contests, it's too obvious for argument that the system is wasting money like crazy. But I'm hesitant to take the suggestions of a person who was in charge of this mess (the "Director of Rehabliitation"). The first question she needs to ask is not of us but of herself. If I, as head of rehabilitation, had a success rate that didn't even get to 35%, I would be circumspect before telling others what THEY need to do.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 4, 2010 9:39:30 AM

Bill O's comment is what's "preposterous on its face," and as usual he chooses to argue against a straw man when it would be inconvenient for his reactionary stance to seriously address a subject. The reentry transition period - especially the first year out of prison - is the most critical factor in recidivism. Shifting some portion of prison spending to intensive community supervision during that period absolutely would both save taxpayers money and improve the recidivism rate. The CA director's (quite valid) point is that prison alone doesn't rehabilitate; for that, offenders must successfully reintegrate into society once they're out.

Finally, as I understand it Bill was formerly a lawyer with DEA, so by his logic, since that agency has failed so utterly and completely at prosecuting the drug war, perhaps HE's the one who should "be circumspect before telling others what THEY need to do."

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Oct 4, 2010 10:06:05 AM

A bit more of Grits' wisdom from his entry July 6, 2009 8:28:05 AM. I'm not making this up:

"Bill, Dudley and SC are just bloodthirsty, believing that all killing by the state is inherently, morally good in all instances..."

I suppose I'll hear that this direct quotation is a "straw man," since that's about as far as it goes with Grits. What I won't hear is an admission that his statement is an outright lie, and was so intended.

Grits does, for once, say something substantive and even truthful, so I will respond to that. It is true that increased supervision during the first year of release will probably lower recidivism in that year (and maybe longer). The truths passed over are (1) that, nonetheless, public safety will be more secure by keeping the inmate in prison for that year, since even the best supervision will not produce a recidivism rate of zero (or anything approaching zero); and (2) that the primary factor determining the defendant's chance of recidivism is not the government's allocation of money, but his own will and desire. Supervision, no matter how good, is not a match for that.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 4, 2010 12:03:25 PM

Actually Bill, what IS a straw man is that you insist on confronting everything BUT the topic of the post or the direct arguments made in the article Doug mentioned, just as you've done here by dredging up some old comment of mine on a completely different topic. You routinely want to change the subject to an argument you think you can win instead of debating the subject at hand.

As for my quote, I'll grant it was hyperbole, but not by much. I've never seen you oppose an execution, for example, for any reason. Indeed, it's telling that long-ago line still sticks in your craw. Only a hit dog hollers.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Oct 4, 2010 1:00:53 PM

Changing the argument to one you can win is a time-honored rhetorical/legal technique, but it really loses its effectiveness when it is your *only* technique, and you employ it so frequently and transparently.

On the substance, bill o guts his own argument by conceding that spending on reentry reduces recidivism in the first year and perhaps beyond. His counter-argument, that it is safer to keep the inmate in prison for that extra year, only works in a universe where all sentences are LWOP (otherwise, eventually people get out and reoffend at a higher rate), or where resources are infinite (so that we can pay to *both* keep people locked up longer and give them reentry services when the get out). We do not live in either world.

I think that the point that Woodford (and grits) is trying to address is about recognizing these trade-offs and managing them intelligently to achieve the maximal possible safety and stability, rather than sticking our heads in the sand and squandering our resources on self-righteousness and delusions of control.

Posted by: Atty | Oct 4, 2010 2:35:50 PM

Atty --

Ignoring and distorting segments of the opposition's argument to address only points you think you can win is a time-honored rhetorical/legal technique, but it really loses its effectiveness when you employ it so frequently and transparently.

It helps to read what is being commented upon. The title Doug gave this piece is, "California's bloated prison system threatens public safety." Its central thesis, as presented here, is that having too many criminals in prison imperils public safety. But that is facially absurd, as I pointed out.

OF COURSE it's a question of trade-off's. That is exactly the point the piece misses. What YOU are missing is that it's not a zero-sum world. We can keep criminals in prison for that additional year AND put more money into intensive supervision in the first year they're out.

But where's the money coming from, you ask? The answer (at least one answer) is (1) higher fees for the annual renewal of bar membership, and (2) refusing to use public funds for the grossly expensive and typically frivolous death penalty appeals that go on year after year (refusing to pay, that is, after the killer has had a chance for direct appeal and colatteral review, and guilt is not in doubt).

The public was billed over $12,000,000 for Timmy McVeigh to put on a false (and largely irrelevant) defense. But McVeigh was not only obviously guilty; he BRAGGED about why he did it on "Sixty Minutes." Do you think the $12,000,000 could have been put to better use?

P.S. No proposal I made calls for "infinite resources," contrary to your false claim. It calls for ADDITIONAL resources. So by the way does the repeated call on this blog, which I support, for additional resources for public defenders and for mandatory vocational education in prison.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 4, 2010 5:51:31 PM

Bill -- did you actually read the op-ed that Doug linked to? Woodford is not really arguing to put "more criminals on the streets instead of in jail," as you put it. Rather, she's arguing in favor of a proposal to fund counties so they can keep offenders with short sentences (e.g. 3 mos.) in county jail rather than state prison. These are people who would be incarcerated for a short term either way and the question is whether it will be in county jail or state prison. Woodford argues that the higher costs of transport, processing, etc. that it costs to send someone to state prison aren't worth it and the funds would be better spent at the county level. Woodford is not referring to inmates who were ever going to be in prison for one year, much less "another year." California has a policy of sending people to state prison on parole violations for short terms of a few months, which is part of why its recidivism rate looks so high compared to other states.

Posted by: Sara Mayeux | Oct 5, 2010 1:55:41 AM

I am amazed, again, but not to great a degree, that no one who responded has had any experience of the "supervision", intense or other wise that they so grandly commend/condemn. The real problem with release is can you get a job? Will it be one that will permit you to exist and provide for your family at any reasonable level? A former convict and his/her family get just as hungry as a law-abiding-citizens'. Will you be allowed/permitted to begin the process of re-entering society? Or will ever door be closed to you? How many jobs are open to you? Are you too old for them? Too qualified?
I am , again, reminded of virgins writing sex manuals - yes, yes, we all know how you would like it to be - but it just isn't like that.
To clarify my position and "credentials" for making this post , permit me to state that I did ten years in Federal Prison and am about to finish up three years of Supervised Release.
Rehabilitation, it must be recalled, was rejected , by the Feds some few years ago and thus, in the Fed. system is a non-considered function. Odd, as the statistics for educational rehabilitation showed it to be rather successful. But, tough on crime and who cares how much it costs. Especially with the war on drugs, eh?
Bad joke and a high price tag.

Posted by: Tim Rudisill | Oct 5, 2010 8:37:24 AM

Ms. Mayeux --

Thank you for the clarification. If it's simply a question of the same amount of time in a more expensive facility or a less expensive facility, the answer is obvious.

Now let me ask you a question I put earlier. Do you think the $12,000,000 in taxpayer money that went toward defending Timmothy McVeigh -- a man who bragged about his guilt on national TV -- could have been better spent on prison security/vocational rehabilitation programs?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 5, 2010 11:47:43 AM

Comically, Bill thinks "We can keep criminals in prison for that additional year AND put more money into intensive supervision in the first year they're out." Have your cake and eat it too! I'll bet he also wants lower taxes.

In reality, where state budgets must be funded by taxes and not ideologically driven rhetoric, the revenue sources Bill suggests aren't remotely enough to continue funding CA's broken prison system: Barely a drop in the bucket compared to the state's massive deficit. When legislators must make budget "tradeoffs," that doesn't mean one side of the "trade" just gets more and more ad infinitum except in some tuff-on-crime fantasyland. As Ronald Reagan understood, cuts must come from somewhere.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Oct 5, 2010 11:58:26 AM

Oh, BTW, none of the money spent on McVeigh's defense could be spent on CA's prison problem because it was a federal prosecution. That's just another red herring to pivot the conversation away from the discussion of honest suggestions to resolve the budget crisis.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Oct 5, 2010 12:20:31 PM

Everybody but Grits knows that what drives the deficit is out of control entitlement and social spending. That's the only place really big bucks can be saved. Still, since the defense bar puts a big push behind the "release-'em-to-save-money" campaign, it might think about at least modestly contributing to the cause by supporting my suggestion for higher bar renewal fees, and cutting way down on the gargantuan and scandalous amounts we spend on decades of death penalty litigation.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 5, 2010 12:27:57 PM

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