Overcrowded Prisons: "It's Just a Churn"

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California Institution for Men Aug. 7, 2006

Brown v. Plata SCOTUS decision

Today's U.S. Supreme Court decision blasting California's prison overcrowding as unconstitutional lands right in the middle of some fundamental debates over how we govern our state.

My colleagues Scott Shafer and John Myers touched on a couple of them on this morning's Forum.

As Shafer pointed out, one big reason for California's high prison population -- and high recidivism rate (between 60 and 70 percent)-- is the way we handle parolees.

"A large percentage of inmates who cycle in and out of the state prison system every year are parole violators," Shafer noted on Forum. "Many of these inmates go back for relatively minor violations and they're just cycled in and out of the state prisons. They're not there for very long; there isn't any time to rehabilitate them.  It's just a churn."

And as John Myers, who hosted the show, pointed out, one potential (at least partial) solution to the overcrowding is embodied in Gov. Jerry Brown's "realignment" plan, which would turn over responsibility for parolees to county governments.

Reporter Julie Small at public radio station KPCC recently explored how realignment of criminal justice might work.

Such a move would not only shift those folks out of state prisons but would shift the cost off of the state budget. But in order for it to work, counties will need new revenue. Brown's plan was to raise the cash with tax extensions but so far that idea has not passed muster with the legislature's Republicans, who hold veto power under our two-thirds majority vote system.

Myers interviewed Republican Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, who is dead set against shifting parolees to counties: "It solves the Department of Corrections' problem but it dumps that problem on our local communities."

But Nielsen also pointed out another governance decision we can make, namely investing more attention and resources in preventing crime, rather than punishing it.

"The true answer to this prison overcrowding is early intervention in the lives of our youth as they begin to get into criminal activity," he said.

Californians have also made policy decisions over the years -- notably with the 1994 voter-approved Three Strikes initiative -- that have lengthened prison sentences. That has meant more prisoners are locked up for more years, increasing the state's prison population. And as prisoners age, a growing share of the state budget is going to pay the medical expenses of sick and elderly inmates, as our KPBS reported last year.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's prisoner census as of May 18, 2011 was roughly 162,000 inmates. Of those, some 10,000 have been sent to prisons in Arizona, Mississippi and Oklahoma. Another 5,000 or so are housed in contract facilities, including private prisons. And about 147,000 are in California's state prisons. (On top of that, about 105,000 Californians are currently on parole.)

The number of inmates in state facilities puts our prisons at 175 percent of the capacity they were built to house. The U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to get the population down to 137.5 percent of capacity, or about 110,000 prisoners, according to Prison Law Office director Don Specter, who was also a Forum guest.

Specter was confident that California could reduce the current overcrowding:  "Other states throughout the country have reduced their prison populations and in many cases not only has the crime rate not gone up but the crime rate has decreased....  Many state have shown the way to do this and California can follow in the successful footsteps of those states."

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Comments (2)

  1. Brenda Atchison says:

    I Have a son currently at Theo Lacey in Orange County, California. He is there on possesion and probation violation. He is a “DRUG ADDICT”. He has been turned down for drug court and has been to court at least 6 times since March 9th, 2011. We are practising “tough love” with him and have not visited, gone to court or wrote letters to him. We are praying he gets the help he really needs. He has been in and out of jail and gone to two different drug rehabs. His brief stints in rehab have only been for 6 months or less. Then he relaps and gets caught doing something to put him back in jail. Our system needs some kind of long term drug rehabilation instead of jail time. Our prisons are full of addicts that have violated their probations. If we as tax payers are going to foot the bill, why can’t we foot the bill to rehabilitate them from drugs? Overfilling our prisons and not getting these people any help is basically institutionallizing them on tax payer’s dollar. Isn’t there some better way to handle all this?

    • Tyche Hendricks says:

      Dear Brenda,

      Thanks for your comment. My heart goes out to you and your family. And you raise a really important public policy issue: what is the best way for our society to cope with the high proportion of jail and prison inmates with substance abuse problems? What is best for those inmates? For the communities they return to when they are released? For taxpayers? Where we put our tax dollars — what balance we strike between funding drug treatment and crime prevention versus funding punishment and prison — is a fundamental question for how we choose to govern California.