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October 6, 2011

Effective commentary providing the back-story on California prison problems

The Los Angeles Times has this effective new commentary by columnist George Skelton, headlined "Prison overcrowding and underfunding lead to more local burdens; Transfer of prisoners to local lockups was inevitable because voters want stiff sentences but won't pay for them."  Here are excerpts:

The boring, bureaucratic word "realignment" masks the truly dramatic change in locking up California criminals that Gov. Jerry Brown just pulled off.

"A lot of people say, 'Hey, what's new in Sacramento?'" Brown told a news conference last week.  "Well, this is new.  It's bold.  It's difficult.  And it will continuously change as we learn from experience.  But we can't sit still and let the courts release 30,000 serious prisoners.  We have to do something."

In truth, the change was inevitable.  Either the state began to dump thousands of its lower-risk prisoners onto local custody or it would have been forced by federal courts to dump them on the streets....

Complainers — such as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — are being disingenuous, at best. Villaraigosa called a news conference Monday to denounce the state for not providing "a single dollar to help with the burden" of incarcerating and monitoring more criminals. "That is not alignment. That is political malpractice."

Not quite. The state is sending financial help to the counties, including $124 million to Los Angeles County.  It's up to the cities to request a share. The mayor has privately told people that he won't "go begging" to county supervisors for money, according to one state official who requested anonymity because he was reporting a private conversation.

My favorite hyperbole, however, comes from Republican State Sen. Sharon Runner of the Antelope Valley: "Now is the time for Californians to get a dog, buy a gun and install an alarm system. The state of California is no longer going to protect you."

Let's be honest: The politicians and the voters simply could not continue their decades-long insistence on increasing criminal sentences and enlarging the prison population without raising the money to pay for more cells and guards....

Prisons originally designed for 80,000 inmates ballooned to 170,000. Thousands were stacked like cordwood in barracks, gyms and hallways, some triple-bunked.  There was little room for exercise and rehab: education, job training and drug treatment. The recidivism rate rose to 70%, twice the national average.

Actually, it all started back when Brown was first governor in the 1970s. He signed a bill that switched California to determinate sentencing, mandating a fixed term for each crime. Before that, sentencing and release were more flexible, depending a lot on the inmate's behavior behind bars.

"Things didn't prove out the way we expected," then-Atty. Gen. Brown told me two years ago, when he was preparing to run for governor again.  "If a prisoner knows he's going to spend a determined amount of time for a crime, it may create a deterrent.  But then once in prison, there's no incentive to do work programs, to improve yourself, no incentive that you can get out earlier. That's bad. That's very bad… I think the whole prison system needs to be changed."...

When Brown was governor in 1978, the prison population was roughly 21,000.  It accounted for less than 3% of state general fund spending. Currently, there are approximately 160,000 inmates — 140,000 within state prison walls; the rest incarcerated out of state, in camps or locally — and they're consuming more than 11% of the general fund, or almost $10 billion.

Costs have skyrocketed as politicians tried to outdo each other in stiffening sentences while voters cheered.  "Three strikes" has been a particular money-burner. Meantime, polls showed that prison spending was the first thing voters wanted to cut and the last thing they were willing to pay more taxes for.  A survey in May by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 70% of likely voters favored reducing funds for prisons. Only 18% supported raising taxes to maintain the lockups....

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature stumbled around on the issue for years.  Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court in May ordered California to empty its prison cells of 30,000 inmates. With a court gun to their heads, Brown and Democratic legislators acted.

Their solution: Those who commit nonviolent, non-serious and non-sex-related crimes will be incarcerated in county jails instead of sent to state prisons.  Such current inmates, when released by the state, will be supervised by county probation officials.  Parole violators won't be sent to prison, they'll be jailed locally and for less time than previously. The hope is that there'll be more rehab opportunities locally than in the packed pens.

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Comments

"The hope is that there'll be more rehab opportunities locally than in the packed pens."

That seems highly unlikely. In most states, prisoners are desperate to get out of the county jails and into the state system, because the county jails are typically anarchic, full of turnover, and more or less holding pens not conducive to any kind of structure or routine. It sounds like California's state system is worse then most, but I doubt that means the inverse is true. I'd assume its county jails are similar to everywhere else and are just not set up to provide rehabilitation, programming, etc. (especially as they are asked to absorb a huge influx of new inmates).

Posted by: Anon | Oct 6, 2011 5:38:35 PM

Got to disagree the idea that prisnors are trying to stay in county jails makes no sense to me because these places offer nothing in the way of facilities and structure medium term (if your destined for a stay of that length state system is much better.

Posted by: PlayBlue Judy | Oct 12, 2011 12:25:08 PM

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