Left Coasting: The Door That Swings Both Ways

California fails to cope with its crowded prisons

by Rosalea Barker

Every person in prison in California will one day be released. Take a deep breath and repeat after me: Every person in prison in California will one day be released. True, a tiny percentage of them will be released from prison to their Maker—by suicide, deadly assault, natural causes, execution, or as a result of an accident—but all the rest will be released into society.

It bears thinking about long and hard doesn’t it? And California has thought about it long and hard. According to a 2007 expert panel report (pdf) commissioned by the CA Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), there has been more than a dozen reports since 1990, all recommending the same core ten reforms:

1. Stop sending non-violent, non-serious offenders to prison. This particularly pertains to technical parole violators, who could better be served in community based, intermediate facilities.

2. Once in prison, use a standardized risk and needs assessment tool to match resources with needs and determine appropriate placements for evidence-based rehabilitation programs.

3. Develop and implement more and better work, education, and substance abuse treatment programs for prisoners and parolees.

4. Reform California’s determinate [i.e. non-discretionary] sentencing system to reward prisoners for participating in rehabilitation programs and allow the system to retain prisoners who represent a continued public safety risk.

5. Move low risk prisoners to community-based facilities toward the later part of their sentences to foster successful reintegration and save more expensive prison-based resources. Sub-populations, such as women, the elderly and the sick, are ideal candidates.

6. Create a sentencing policy commission or some other administrative body that is authorized to design new sentencing statutes into a workable system that balances uniformity of sentencing with flexibility of individualization.

7. Reform California’s parole system so that non-serious parole violators are handled in community based intermediate facilities and more violent parole violators are prosecuted for new crimes.

8. Create viable partnerships between state and local corrections agencies that would expand sentencing options, enhance rehabilitation services, and strengthen local reentry systems. Suggestions have been made that include Community Corrections Acts (to get greater funding for local criminal justice initiatives) and a Community Corrections Division of the CDCR charged with developing alternatives.

9. Evaluate all programs and require that existing and newly funded programs are based on solid research evidence.

10. Promote public awareness so that taxpayers know what they are getting for their public safety investment and become smarter and more engaged about California’s prison system.

As I write this on the last weekend of August, 2009, the California State Assembly Speaker, Karen Bass, is trying to have a penal reform bill currently before the Assembly rewritten so that it will pass on Monday. The companion Senate bill squeaked through amid much acrimonious debate on Thursday morning. The legislation is part of a reform package requested by Governor Schwarzenegger (R) two years ago, and is required as part of a Budget deal to help create a $1.2 billion cut in Corrections expenditures.

In the Senate, all Republicans opposed it, and four Democrats voted with them—the final vote was 21/19. Later on Thursday, the companion bill was debated even more acrimoniously in the Assembly. It will have to be severely gutted in order to pass—in large part because politicians value their jobs more highly than they value reasoned debate and reform. Assembly members can serve only three terms, each of two years, and even those who won’t be able to run for Assembly again in 2010 but have their eye on other elected positions don’t want to go on the record as being “soft on crime”. The inclusion of a new Sentencing Commission in the bill is particularly controversial and will likely be dropped.

Responses from inside the door

Besides the proximity of the 2010 elections, which include election of the next Governor, two other factors are reflected in the timing of this legislation: the budget deal mentioned earlier, in which the Governor asked the legislature to find ways of reducing the prison population by about 27,000 in order to save money; and a ruling by a three-judge panel of the Federal District Court saying that, because the inadequate health care provided by the CDCR amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment”—forbidden by the US Constitution—the prison population needs to be reduced by 40,000 to a mere 137 percent of CDCR’s design bed capacity.

The CDCR Secretary’s response to that August 4 ruling, which gave him 45 days to come up with a two-year prisoner number reduction plan, is available as a video here. In it, Secretary Cate refers to the key components of the Governor’s plan to reduce the prison population: “parole reform; alternative custody, including the use of GPS technology for our aged and infirm inmates and inmates serving 12 months or less; incentive credits for inmates to achieve accomplishments in prison like a GED or a drug and alcohol program that reduce recidivism…. We think they are sound measures that will reduce our prison population in a safe way over time.” (GED stands for general education diploma, and is the lowest educational requirement for anyone seeking employment.)

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), which represents the more than 30,000 correctional peace officers working inside California’s prisons and youth facilities, and the state’s parole agents who supervise inmates after their release, also supports the Governor’s reforms, including a sentencing commission. (Peace officer is a generic term in the US for any law enforcement officer charged with maintaining civil peace.) At a recent forum on California’s correctional crisis, Michael Jimenez, President of CCPOA, is reported as saying that the current sentencing scheme is “so bad that he could not imagine anything worse. The CCPOA has been pushing for a sentencing commission as well, but very disheartened with the political process around it. It all revolves, said Jimenez, around money; there is no political fix for the sentencing problem as long as our policy calculations are influenced by short term, year-to-year tactics.”

It should be noted that because of its political contribution history, the CCPOA is hugely disliked in California. An inmate of a state prison who has a blog on the San Francisco Bay Guardian website, in a post entitled What should government do?, writes that the “only rational solution to reducing the cost of imprisoning the populace is to change the sentencing laws and criminal code to a degree that reflects our principles as a free society in a way that makes sense. Only when the need for guards is lessened by a reduced need for prisons will there actually be any ground gained on breaking the stranglehold the CCPOA and other powerful unions have on California.” The same blogger had earlier written that releasing low-risk prisoners early would be detrimental to the remaining prison population because it’s the low-risk prisoners who work in support services such as kitchens and laundries, and detrimental to California itself as low-risk prisoners also form the backbone of the CA Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s wildfire fighting teams.

Responses from outside the door

Groups representing police officers intensely lobbied Sacramento about the prisoner early release plans when they were first announced as part of the Budget deal. In a June 22 Memorandum to the Legislature, the California Fraternal Order of Police, California Narcotic Officers Association, California Peace Officers Association, California Police Chiefs Association, and eight groups representing police and sheriffs in Southern California cities and counties, along with the LA County District Attorney, said they were “extremely concerned about the damage to public safety that will be caused” by going ahead with the plans.

But by July 23, the LA Times was reporting that the California Police Chiefs Association was “very pleased” that the proposed legislation would include home detention and target specific offenders who behave well, are sick or have the least time to serve, instead of the blanket release the CPCA had feared. All that changed when the bill that is being voted on was written to include a sentencing commission—a concept the police adamantly oppose. Perhaps because it will reduce the number of convictions and therefore the value of property seized, which, according to federal law, police forces can sell and keep the money for themselves.

The “damage to public safety” meme articulated by the CPCA and other organizations back in June and now being repeatedly conjured up in the legislative debates over the current bill is far from dead and likely never will be. It is such an easy meme to get going. The popular image from news reports is of parolees being returned to jail because of new crimes they commit. Naturally, from a news organization’s point of view—the more spectacular and gruesome the crime the better! Furthermore, because of the extremely high numbers of parolees returned to prison in California, the public is easily persuaded to think that the early release of prisoners will result in thousands of newly paroled dangerous criminals roaming the streets.

Jeffrey Lin, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at the University of Denver, and one of the authors of this article about parole violations and revocations in the June issue of the journal Federal Probation, told me in a phone interview that “the proportion of prison admissions comprised of those who’ve had parole revoked has been rising, and in California, it’s now around 60 percent.” He was unable to provide current figures on the numbers for each type of parole revocation, but in the article the authors say that “Over a third (35 percent) of all the recorded parole violations were for noncriminal, or ‘technical,’ violations. Two-thirds of technical violations were for absconding supervision, meaning that the parolee missed an appointment and/or his or her whereabouts were unknown.” [Emphasis mine.]

It might surprise legislators to know that the U.S. public actually does understand that a prison sentence is not always the most appropriate way of punishing a crime. A June 2009 Zogby Poll (pdf) commissioned by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, which has been in existence since 1907, reported that over three-quarters (77%) of those polled believe alternatives to incarceration do not decrease public safety.

(A quick word here about terms used in speaking about the CA criminal justice and penal systems. All crimes are defined in the California Penal Code, and are classified as petty crimes, misdemeanours, or felonies—which are crimes punishable by at least a year in prison or a fine exceeding $1,000. Some crimes are “wobblers”, that is, they might be decided in court to be either a felony or misdemeanor. In the Zogby Poll report they are using “prison” to mean state penal institutions and “jail” for the place any municipal jurisdiction such as a city or county sends those convicted of a crime.)

One of the greatest problems with the California criminal justice and penal systems is that, until Schwarzenegger began forcing reforms in 2005, the Department of Corrections did not have the words “and Rehabilitation” in its title, and did not see its role as preparing inmates for a life outside the prison walls. In contrast, Arizona’s Getting Ready program works with the prisoner from the day he or she is admitted to turn them into what might be termed the key that will eventually fit the lock on their prison’s door. In other words, prisoners are rewarded for doing well and striving to better themselves, and by molding themselves in that way, they earn their release.

Although it’s not available online, except snippets as part of a 2008 promo, episode 1502 of a TV series called Visionaries, which airs on public service television stations, reports that in Arizona: “Inmate-on-inmate violence is down by 37 percent, inmate-on-staff assaults by 51 percent, and inmate suicides have been reduced by 33 percent. But the real change comes when the inmates are released. An inmate who has gone through the program is 35 percent more successful on the outside. That means they are more likely to get jobs, stay drug free and reunite with their family. It also means they are far less likely to commit another crime.”

All of that costs money, which California obviously has so little of that it’s prepared to tackle the big issues around crime in the current bill. Those issues include what constitutes a jailable offence, what the sentence should be, how much of the sentence should be served, what can be done to improve parole and probation so recidivism can be reduced, and what rehabilitation services should be provided and where. County and municipal jurisdictions oppose the Governor’s early release plan because of the strain it will place on local services provided to the formerly incarcerated.

For an insight into what a prisoner can expect to experience on their release—early or otherwise—I spoke with Rev. Harry Williams, Jr., who has years of experience with both adults and juveniles in San Francisco. He works with Glide Church’s Youthbuild Leadership Program, a nonprofit. The website says that Glide Youthbuild is “a leadership and training program for 17-24 year-old youth from San Francisco’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods. The program includes onsite construction skills training, personal development and leadership skills workshops, GED preparation and the ability to earn academic credit towards a high school diploma. It places graduates in apprenticeship opportunities with building trade unions (Carpentry, Drywall, Ironwork, Cement Masons).”

Many of Williams’ youthful clients are formerly incarcerated or become incarcerated during the course of the program. He says that juvenile detention centers “condition youthful offenders to uniforms”, and that nowadays prison is no longer a scary thing, unlike twenty or thirty years ago when there were far fewer prisoners. Nowadays, when so many are incarcerated, he says, the idea of going to prison “has lost its fear, its terror. It’s just a rite of passage.”

“For the recidivism rate to be so high for a place that’s so dangerous, you have to ask why,” Williams says. “It’s because of the lack of resources in the outside world, lack or direction, lack of job opportunity, lack of understanding on the outside, and inaccessible drug recovery services.” He is also skeptical of the political will to make meaningful changes, and points to one San Francisco facility run by a private company whose stock is traded on Wall Street as an example. The Cornell Facility (pdf), as it is known locally, provides transitional services for those released from federal custody, but it is in one of the most crime-ridden areas of the City, making it difficult for its inmates to break from their past.

Prisoners on parole from state prisons are given $200 and released to the jurisdiction in which they were sentenced—even if that city or county is hundreds of miles away from where their family might be. Even if they had been sentenced where their family lives, the prisoner might not be able to go back to live with them, either because the family will face eviction if the person re-offends, or because a condition of their parole is that they don’t associate with them.

As for finding work, felons are prohibited from working in a wide range of jobs in California, including getting a barber’s license—yet barbering is one of the trades taught in state prisons. Parole officers’ caseloads are so large that they now are no longer thought of as agents of rehabilitation helping ex-offenders get work and a place to live—that takes too much time—but as agents of surveillance and re-arrest. With the odds stacked against ex-prisoners on the housing and job front, who can be surprised if some fail to report to their parole officer just to get back to jail with its guaranteed “three hots and a cot”?

In short, without major reforms here on the outside—including a shift in the way the media reports crime, and a disentanglement of public safety issues from the self-serving interests of the businesses, local jurisdictions, and unions that profit in some way from having high prosecution and incarceration rates, plus an end to the self-serving interests of politicians—there will always be a “corrections crisis” in California.