Tag Archives: recidivism rate

Will Our Attorney General Candidates Get The Prison Crisis?

Today, Chief Privacy Officer at Facebook Chris Kelly announced an exploratory committee for the race for California Attorney General.  He joins a field that includes Assemblymembers Ted Lieu, Pedro Nava and Alberto Torrico; San Francisco DA Kamala Harris, and Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo.  In his statement, which you can find at his website, Kelly talked about efficienct and effective government, Internet safety, proper training and equipment for law enforcement, and stopping trafficking.  The words “prisons,” “jails,” “corrections” or “parole” was not mentioned.

Our prison system is a mess.  We have the highest recidivism rate in the country, mostly because 2/3 of our prisoners returning to jail go there because of technical violations of their parole.  This turns jails into giant holding pens instead of areas for rehabilitation and treatment, as well as colleges for nonviolent offenders on how to get involved in violent crime.  The overstuffed prisons cost more money to staff and service as they become more dangerous, leading to the state spending more on incarceration than higher education.  Despite all this spending, conditions in the prisons are medieval, with the ACLU proposing the closure of the LA County Men’s Central Jail.  Prison officials are discussing release of 8,000 nonviolent and terminally ill offenders, but that’s a drop in the bucket.  We also have denied prisoners their Constitutional right to health care, and have a federal receiver now remedying that situation, taking it out of the hands of the legislature.  The “tough on crime” mantra that has ruled the thinking of both parties on this issue has utterly and completely failed.

And yet, our Attorney General candidates and our gubernatorial candidates view this absolute crisis as just another check on their list, instead of the serious problem it is.  Gavin Newsom didn’t bring it up in his speech, though I did ask him about it in the blogger meeting afterwards.  He talked about how we need a re-entry strategy better than the failed parole system, and cited some re-entry reforms in San Francisco that have helped matters.  And he stated that having the courts step in to fix the problem presents an opportunity for real reform.  With respect to the drug war, which lies at the heart of this, he expressed his support for drug courts and mental health courts and the kind of options that wouldn’t consign nonviolent offenders to the rigors of overcrowded prison life when they need medical treatment.  And he vowed to have more detailed programs available soon.  But when it counted, on stage, he said nothing.  Jerry Brown did tackle the issue, but his non-stop fight against the prison health care receiver and sensible steps like Prop. 5 destroy any credibility he may have had on the issue.

I have appreciated Greg Lucas’ interviews with some of the candidates in the Attorney General’s race, and I have paid particular attention to their views on the prison crisis.  (over)

Here are Alberto Torrico’s ideas to deal with recidivism:

CC: What’s the best way to reduce recidivism?

AT: First, we need to evaluate. See what programs work and don’t work. We’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do about these parolees. Put all these people out and then there’s too many parolees and too few parole officers. We can’t continue to pretend our prisons are drug rehab centers because they’re not. We need to get resources to people who can be helped and make sure when they’re tried at the local level they get put into programs that work.

I’ve been a criminal defense lawyer. I’ve been a labor lawyer. I represented a public agency. The judge tells people under Prop 36 (drug rehab law) that you’re not going to jail, you’re going to get counseling once a week for 12 weeks. You’re not going to beat an addition one hour a week over 12 weeks.

He seems earnest about lowering the recidivism rate as a financial and moral imperative, and these ideas are somewhat noble, but they read like bullet points, without the innovation necessary to really deal with this crisis.  It’s not just about hoping the locals solve the problem, but a strategy that focuses on rehabilitation, re-entry and alternatives to prison right at the top.

Here’s Ted Lieu on the same subject:

CC: Not sure how much it costs but it has to be expensive when we parole 120,000 people a year and within two years over 70 percent are back in prison.

TL: It is a sort of downward spiraling problem. Because we have a prison-overcrowding situation we now aren’t doing any of the skills training in prison programs that teach people how to function in society when they leave prison. And then people come back to prison because they have nowhere to go and that increases the over-crowding.

I’m a big supporter of drug courts. If someone is addicted, they should get treated. When revenues are falling off a cliff its extremely difficult to fund the programs we need to help people when they get out of prison. Long-term view is that yes it costs some money now but in the long-term it would help the state save money.

If an inmate works toward a degree then they should get early release credits as an incentive to do such things. Part of the problem – and this is a much larger fix – is I think I we also need to improve our education system. If we did, we’d have less people in prison as well.

I just see a lot of people talking around the problem.  I support drug courts as well, but I think there’s a mindset change that’s needed.  The Attorney General at this point is in a position to transform the entire way we think about prisons and rehabilitation.  Rocky Delgadillo gets closer to that.

CC: Speaking of costs, recidivism is very expensive. Something like 120,000 people are paroled each year and 70 percent are back behind bars within two years.

RD: We’ve got to get on the front end. One thing we know about gang members and people who have been in prison is they tend to have a shelf life it tends to end. But if they’re young and active and they go out they do it again. Why? Because in prison they get to hang out with the best in their business. And we pay for it. Great health care plan. So when they get out, they go back to it again. So the answer is to send less in.

We have a program called “First Chance.” I grew up in Northeast Los Angeles. People would say they’ll give you a second chance. You can’t have a second chance until you have a first chance. This is a program for young, but adults who get into our system. Not where they’ve done a serious crime but we know they’re involved with gangs or negative activity. We allow them to go to job training and school and if they complete it, we drop the charges. It’s a much better investment up front then to try and deal with them after they’ve been in prisons. In there, it’s an abyss.

Finally, here’s Kamala Harris, who actually pre-empts the discussion by raising recidivism without being asked:

CC: What role can the Attorney General play in the state’s seemingly endless budget mess?

KH: First, critically examine how the criminal justice system is working and whether we are being most efficient with limited dollars. Here’s an obvious example: Recidivism. California has the highest recidivism rate in the country. On an annual basis we release more than 120,000 prisoners and within two years of their release 71 percent recidivate. That’s costing us a lot of money.

In San Francisco, we created a re-entry initiative in my office. Its called “Back on Track.” It’s for low-level, first-time, non-violent offenders. I brought on my friends from labor – the building trades guys – friends from the business community, non-profits, and we give the parolees job skills development, education and help them meet things like parenting needs. A lot of these young offenders are parents. We reduced recidivism for this specific population from 54 percent to less than 10 percent. The national DA’s association has designated “Back on Track” as a national model.

My vote in this crowded Attorney General’s field will be almost entirely predicated on each candidate’s approach to the prison crisis.  Will they reverse the “tough on crime” myth and start talking about sentencing reform?  Will they discuss serious options to reform parole?  Will they bring up innovative strategies around re-entry and recidivism that would put the focus on rehabilitation and spend on the front end to save on the back end (Hint: check with Kansas)?  Will they touch the third rail of the failed drug war by moving toward decriminalization and keeping tabs on those who commit crimes with victims instead of nonviolent drug abuse?

I eagerly await the answers.

Prisoners Out Of Sight, Prisoners Out Of Mind

On Sunday, the LA Times reported the results of an investigation which revealed that the Department of Corrections has routinely miscalculated prison sentences, costing state taxpayers as much as $44 million dollars and clogging the worst prisons in the country, which has a cumulative effect.

Records obtained by The Times show that in August, the state sampled some inmate cases and discovered that in more than half — 354 of 679 — the offenders were set to remain in prison a combined 104 years too long. Fifty-nine of those prisoners, including (Nicholas) Shearin, had already overstayed and were subsequently released after serving a total of 20 years too many, an average of four months each […]

The errors could cost the state $44 million through the end of this fiscal year if not corrected and more than $80 million through mid-2010. But California’s overburdened prison agency waited more than two years to change its method of awarding credit for good behavior after three court rulings, one as early as May 2005, found it to be illegal.

Officials were giving some inmates 15% good behavior time instead of the 50% to which they were entitled. The state fixed release dates for only those inmates who requested it, according to a spokesman for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, who said there was no evidence in Shearin’s file that he complained.

In addition to having a flawed corrections system, it’s just flat-out incompetent as well.

I believe that a fish rots from the head down, and this kind of inattention at the Department of Corrections can reasonably be seen as a direct result of a political leadership in Sacramento that is obsessed with being Tough On Crime ™ and really doesn’t want to see prisoners leave state jails.  Aside from the fiscal issues, this is essentially taking away the fundamental rights of citizens of the state.  As State Senator Gloria Romero notes:

State Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), who chairs the Senate’s public safety committee, said inmates have a fundamental right to a timely release. She criticized the prison agency’s “arrogance in the face of the law to simply say that these people’s lives don’t matter, but they can just lock them away and essentially throw away the key.”

The more errors like this, the more inmates locked up for more periods of time.  This causes overcrowding, which strains treatment and rehabilitation services and creates an environment where the inmates are in more control than the corrections officials.  Suddenly nonviolent offenders are in a school for how to commit violent offenses rather than a means to turn around their life.  And the recidivism rate soars, as those who actually get to leave prison are not equipped to do anything to go back.

This all feeds on itself.  If we want to get serious about prisons, we’ll do the work to reverse it.

Breaking Point: Ted Koppel on the CA Prison Crisis

I’ve written a lot about the California prison crisis in the past, and the last 11 posts I’ve done about it in the last four months have yielded a mere 25 comments.  It’s clear to me that there’s a lot of apathy around the issue, combined with twinges of helplessness and the paralyzing recognition that there are no easy answers.  It’s the ultimate “out of sight, out of mind” situation, and as a result, we end up warehousing prisoners, “stacking them up like cordwood” and conveniently forgetting about what goes on behind bars.

Well, you no longer have to take my word for it.  You can watch Ted Koppel’s riveting two-hour documentary for the Discovery Channel, “Breaking Point,” an exploration of life inside Solano State Prison in Vacaville, CA.  And while you’re at it, you can make 121 copies and send one to every member of the California Legislature and the Governor, so they can witness the fruits of their failed leadership. over…

Designed to accommodate no more than 100,000 inmates, California’s prisons now hold 173,000, each at an annual cost of $43,000. How did things get so out of control? Mandatory sentencing is a big part of the answer. When California voters threw their support behind a get-tough-on-crime bill that came to be known as “Three Strikes and You’re Out,” the state prison system filled up and is now overflowing.

While shooting, Koppel spent a number of days among the general population at Solano. His reporting focuses on the inhabitants of H Dorm, where inmates are stacked in triple-deck bunk beds on an old indoor basketball court. Correctional officers are so badly outnumbered that prison officials keep inmates segregated by race and gang affiliation in a desperate effort to avoid friction and maintain control. Even so, Solano still sees three to four race riots a year. Using smuggled cell phones, gang bosses continue running criminal operations on the street from behind prison walls. At the same time, they’re running drug and prostitution rings inside Solano.

By the way, that segregation is scheduled to end, by court order, come January, and you can expect the race wars to explode (there are already 3-4 large riots annually in a place like Solano as it is).  The corrections officers have, out of convenience, allowed race to govern every aspect of prison life, and shocking the system through integration, just like it did within civil society in the 1950s, is going to cause an explosion.  In the words of one inmate, “Somebody’s son’s gonna die.”  This is going to get worse, much worse.  And the root cause of all of it is the overcrowding issue, which nobody wants to fully address.

The “stack them up like cordwood” line comes from Mark Klaas, whose daughter Polly’s brutal murder ushered in the three strikes sentencing law, which is now rarely being used to capture the kind of violent offenders like the ones involved in her crime.  2/3 of all of the inmates at Solano as a result of the three strikes law struck out on a nonviolent offense.  And these are precisely the inmates who are clogging the system.  Every corrections officer interviewed agreed that tough sentencing laws like three strikes aren’t working.  And even Mark Klaas, whose “cordwood” line represented his earlier state of mind, now believes that we’re “not going to solve the crime problem by building more prisons.”  Only rehabilitation, treatment, and prevention can truly address this crisis.  And here is where the California penal system comes up woefully short.

While 85% of the population at Solano enters prison with either a prior or current substance abuse problem, only 10% will be able to enter the drug treatment and counseling program; there simply aren’t enough spaces.  Only 12% engage in some kind of vocational training, acquiring skills that can potentially be put to good use on the outside.  In fact, the best vocational training in California prisons these days is for crime itself.  “This is a school where you can learn all kinds of crime,” says one official, accounting for the nation’s highest recidivism rate.  And so once their sentences expire, we send these ex-cons off into the world with $200 and a bus ticket, with no skills, no treatment, no job, in many cases no place to live, largely worse off than they were when they entered prison, and we’re surprised when they return?

Koppel’s program does an excellent job of revealing life in the overcrowded prison complex, where even solitary confinement is double occupancy.  Building more prisons so they can simply be housed makes no sense whatsoever.  In the short term, overcrowded county jails will transfer their prisoners up to the state level.  In the long term, more will filter into the system every day without addressing the root causes.  Building costs money, too, money that won’t go to rehabilitation and vocational training and drug treatment and additional officers (who are completely outmanned).  “Nonviolent criminals should not be in this prison.”  Those words of wisdom come from a PRISONER. 

The documentary is a bit short on solutions, making no mention of the proposed independent sentencing commission that fell flat in this year’s legislative session.  But it expertly displays the crisis at hand.  I urge you to watch this important piece of work.  And at the Discovery Channel website, you can take a virtual tour of Solano, see portraits of some of the inmates, and get some more quick facts about prison life.  This is a responsibility from which citizens and our so-called leaders in Sacramento must not shrink.

Federal Judges Heading Up Department Of The Obvious

Let me build on Brian’s post regarding the decision by two separate US District Court judges to convene three-judge panels to consider capping the California prison population.  This should have been completely expected to everyone in the state government.

There is a near-term and a long-term crisis in our state prisons.  So the Governor predictably offered a medium-term solution.  Prisons don’t build themselves overnight, so “adding 53,000 beds” which can only phase in over the course of a couple years does absolutely nothing to address the current situation.  Furthermore, the continued overcrowding, which impacts rehabilitation and treatment and the high recidivism rate, means that by the time those new beds are constructed, the problem will be bigger, and any additional capacity (which doesn’t even cover the CURRENT overcrowding numbers) will be only a temporary solution.  So with root causes unaddressed, there was no way any judge with any sort of conscience could sit idly by and watch as the prison system continues to spiral out of control.  A state government that has COMPLETELY FAILED TO LEAD forced his hand.


This is the first time since the law was established in 1996 offering for this kind of option for federal judges that it has been invoked.  No other system in America is as out of control as the prison system in our state.  And so the judges stepped in because we are violating the Constitution:

First of all, this is not just one judge making findings and a ruling. There are two cases, one before Judge Henderson (Plata) on the prison medical system in which orders were stipulated to (agreed upon) by the parties which included the state of California in 2002 and 2004. The judge has found that those orders have not been complied with. He has based his ruling on the evidence presented, including reports of the Receiver he appointed, last year, Robert Sillen, that document in great detail the problems in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation system.

The other case (Coleman) before Judge Karlton, concerns the medical treatment received by state prisoners with “serious mental disorders,” and has been going on since 1995. In that case, a Special Master, John Hagar, has been appointed by the Judge to investigate and report back to him on how the needs of these mentally ill prisoners have been met. After almost 12 years and 77 orders, the Special Master and the Judge have found the prisons to not be in compliance with the United States Constitution.

Gov. Schwarzenegger is talking about appeal, but there is a voluminous public record documenting this total failure in leadership that has brought our prisons to the crisis point.  But such an appeal will likely take close to a year.  That’s another year where root causes will not be addressed as everyone awaits this decision.

But there’s another way.  The judges have rejected that AB 900, which authorized the construction of the prisons, will be insufficient to deal with the problem.  But if Gloria Romero’s sentencing reform bill, SB 110, can offer a real sea change in empowering an independent commission to recommend and review changes to sentencing law, perhaps the judges can be persuaded that the state is finally moving in the right direction on understanding what needs to be done.  Romero is a lonely voice for sanity on this issue, and with her bill now in the Assembly, she needs to be joined by we the people.  The California Democratic Party has come out in support of sentencing and parole reform.  Every Democratic member of the Assembly needs to be made aware of that fact, and the fact that SB 110 is the ONLY vehicle to get a handle on this unconscionable state prison crisis.  It’s worth a call today.

Resolution Publicity Project: Day 2

Grassroots progressives are picking up on my plea to call representatives to publicize what the party has voted to endorse and ensure that state and federal lawmakers will answer the call of their party and support these initiatives.  The first resolution I mentioned was net neutrality; now we should push the resolution on sentencing reform, which I’ve included in the extended entry.

We know that our criminal justice system nationwide is perverse.  For violent and nonviolent offenders alike, it has become a crucible which demands MORE violence as a means to survive. 

This is what our system of justice does: It takes the unlawful and makes them more violent. It takes criminals and makes them worse, reducing their future options, encouraging them to become more physically brutal, cultivating their marginalization from society. Such is the irony of the politics of crime in this country. We are so afraid of violent criminals that we force our politicians to continually worsen their punishment, condemning them to prisons that have been shown to make inmates more violent.

This is especially true in California, home to the highest recidivism rate in the nation, because all of the overcrowding has for all practical purposes eliminated any treatment or rehabilitation programs and turned the jails into human waste dumps.  This is not something we can build our way out from under; it’s too far gone.  Only some meaningful reform that silences the “tough on crime” crowd and revisits the role of incarceration as an opportunity for redemption and a return to civil society will fix this crisis.  AB 900, which enabled the Governor to add 53,000 beds in exchange for token accountability, is already causing concern that even that accountability will be circumvented.  Enough.  The Governor’s plan is overly cautious and seeks to kick the can down the road.  We need real reform.

Schwarzenegger’s prison managers have begun to implement a program to assess each inmate and give him or her an individual program to follow while in prison. They have also begun a comprehensive re-evaluation of every rehabilitation program to determine which work and which should be abandoned.

But the biggest reductions in overcrowding would come from changes in sentencing laws and parole policies. On those issues, Schwarzenegger must lead the way.

California has the highest recidivism rate in the country, with 70 percent of inmates returning to prison within three years after release. What the state has been doing for a generation is not working. The current policies are draining the treasury and making the streets less safe. It’s time to try a new approach.


This weekend at the CDP E-Board, progressives passed a parole and sentencing reform resolution that mirrors Gloria Romero’s legislation to create an independent sentencing commission to address this runaway train we’ve created with our prisons.


PASSED at E-Board meeting of the California Democrats in Sacramento

WHEREAS Governor Schwarzengger and California legislators decided to build 53,000 new prison and jail beds at a 25-year cost of $15-billion dollars in construction and debt service funds;

WHEREAS this legislative decision was made without a single public hearing in a state that, according to the California Legislative Analyst, currently incarcerates 240,000 inmates in prisons and jails, almost 70% of  whom are people of color, 29% African American, even though African Americans constitute only 6% of the Adult population;

WHEREAS the current plan to build new prison and jail beds ignores the Governor’s Independent Review Panel and the Little Hoover Commission recommendations for parole and sentencing reform that would immediately and drastically reduce California’s prison population and address the problem of overcrowding in a state that, according to the California Legislative Analyst, spends $43,000 each year to incarcerate but only $8,000 to educate a student in our public schools;

THEREFORE BE  IT RESOLVED the California Democratic Party supports implementation of the state’s Independent Review Panel and the Little Hoover Commission’s parole and sentencing reforms: releasing selected low-risk non-violent offenders without parole; moving parolees off parole automatically after 12 clean months; providing community alternatives, not prison, for technical violations of parole; creating a sentencing commission that would recommend changes to penalties.

THEREFORE BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED the California Democratic Party, recognizing a disproportionate percentage of minorities is behind bars, supports implementation of these reforms to address overcrowding in prisons and jails.

Time to call your Democratic legislators in the state and tell them that their party has endorsed this resolution and that you would like them to support it as well.  Make sure you get an answer.  The Romero bill is in the Assembly right now, so that’s where your phone call will do the most good.  Please give our prisons a chance at success and make this state safer by calling now.

Gloria Romero Stands Tall Against The Tough On Crime Crowd

State Sen. Gloria Romero, a.k.a. the only one in Sacramento who gets the prison problem, is really sticking her neck out to deny the rapacious fearmongers more sentencing laws, and she deserves our support.

Republicans are outraged that more than two dozen bills in the Legislature that would create new crimes or lengthen sentences will languish until next year in a committee controlled by Democrats.

Sen. Gloria Romero, who chairs the Senate Public Safety Committee, imposed a one-year moratorium earlier this year on all Senate and Assembly bills that would worsen crowding in California’s prisons and jails.

That’s what you do when there’s a CRISIS.  And considering that there have been nearly 1,000 laws in the past 30 years raising sentences for criminal offenders, I would guess that every additional law is completely unnecessary.  Of course, that’s the bread and butter for those so wedded to the “Tough on Crime” label.  So Republicans are miffed:

But Sen. Dave Cogdill, vice chairman of the committee, maintains the panel “shouldn’t be holding the safety of the people of California hostage to this situation.”

The Modesto Republican concedes prison crowding “is very real, but the reality is any bill that we take action on this year wouldn’t become law until January 2008.”

Right, because new prison facilities can be conjured in a matter of months.  Who’s the architect, Merlin?


Romero, the chief force behind the bill to create an independent sentencing commission, is dead right on the optics of the whole prison crisis.

Romero noted the prisons’ medical system already is being run by a receivership established by the federal courts. And two federal judges have indicated they are leaning toward creating a judicial panel charged with setting a population cap for the entire system.

“We can try to look like we’re tough on crime, but how tough are we if at a certain point the receiver takes over the entire system?” she said, noting that 30 of the state’s 58 counties already have established population caps for their jails.

That’s all some of these legislators care about, looking tough while in actuality squandering our tenuous hold on the prison crisis, increasing recidivism rates, destroying rehabilitation and treatment, and making everyone in this state less safe.  It’s a simple-minded approach that neglects the very real issue of overcrowding.

Romero is really putting herself out there on this.  It may not be a popular position but it’s the right one.  And she should be applauded, as well as supported in her efforts to create a sentencing commission outside of the political sphere so that this “Tough on Crime” nonsense can be muted.

Sellout on Prison Reform

The State Legislature decided to run away from hard choices and add brick and mortar to simply delay our prison crisis without addressing root causes.

Legislative leaders brokered a deal Wednesday to add 53,000 beds to the state’s prison and jail systems while increasing rehabilitation opportunities for inmates with added drug treatment, vocational and education programs.

The $7.4 billion agreement to help ease California’s severe prison overcrowding contained no provisions for any early releases of inmates.

At the same time, it did not include any changes to the state’s parole or sentencing systems. And it drew heavy criticism from the prison system’s two largest public employee unions over a provision that would allow the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to transfer 8,000 inmates out of state in a program now on hold in the appellate courts.

The transferring 8,000 inmates part won’t get through the courts.  And holding firm on sentencing and parole is lunacy, absolute lunacy.  It just means that we’ll all be back here in 5 years.  Meanwhile construction money will be doled out and more nonviolent offenders will be locked up.  And the “increasing rehabilitation opportunities”?  Lip service.


What does the proposal by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, Senate leader Don Perata, Assembly GOP leader Mike Villines and Senate GOP leader Dick Ackerman say about rehabilitation?

According to some prison advocates, not much. In addition to $7.4 billion in spending to build new jails and prisons, it would allocate just $50 million in the first year on substance abuse, education and mental health services. The system currently has about 170,000 prisoners, and a recidivism rate close to 70%.

That’s a crime.  This state government won’t even fully fund Prop. 36, passed by voters to move drug offenders into treatment centers and not prisons.  We have 94 year-old men in walkers who have been rejected for parole six times.  And now there’s a prison “solution” that is notable only for its cowardice, its refusal to address sentencing guidelines and its big talk on rehabilitation without action.  More beds is not the answer; it’s embarrassingly obvious.
A couple good Democrats had some sense, but were not backed up by their leaders:

While Republican lawmakers hailed the agreement, enthusiasm was more muted among Democratic lawmakers, many of whom declined to comment. Two sources familiar with a meeting Wednesday evening among Senate Democrats said that state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, a leading advocate in the Legislature of prison reform, had criticized the plan at the meeting.

State Sen. Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, noted the deal “will mark more growth for the prison industry.”

Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, said policymakers had no choice but to increase the size of the prison system.

“This is a compromise among bad alternatives,” Perata said. “Now we vote and light candles. That’s a reference to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes.”

Are you kidding me?  Apparently the Democrats aren’t in the majority in Sacramento.  I don’t know if you were aware of that.  But that’s what Perata is telling me by this statement.

It’s scandalous.  The political will to actually fix the prison crisis is nonexistent.  This capitulation to try to build our way out of it is fated not to work.  I’m disgusted by this absolute spinelessness.

The Outsourcing Solution

Last week a nonpartisan commission released a disheartening report about the state of California prisons, arguing that decades of “tough on crime” actions by politicians have caused an intractable crisis, with an alarming lack of capacity, the worst recidivism rate in the nation, and a charged atmosphere in state lockups which cause major riots and gang activity.

If policymakers are unwilling to make bold changes, the commission said, they should appoint an independent entity – modeled after the federal Base Closure and Realignment Commission – with the power to do it for them.

“For decades, governors and lawmakers fearful of appearing soft on crime have failed to muster the political will to address the looming crisis,” the commission said.

“And now their time has run out.”

It is clearly time for bold action to relieve the prison crisis, so the Governor took some, though bold may be the only charitable thing you can ssay about it.  More like brazen:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced Friday that his administration would forcibly shift thousands of inmates to out-of-state prisons because only a few hundred had volunteered to leave […]

Between 5,000 and 7,000 inmates will be forcibly moved, said Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary James Tilton. The first to go will be inmates scheduled for deportation after they’ve served their sentences and those who get few visitors.

The reaction to the plan broke down along party lines, with Republicans portraying the same “tough on crime” pose that got us in this mess in the first place.

Republican lawmakers welcomed Schwarzenegger’s decision, calling it overdue.

“We are out of options,” said Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange), who chairs a committee examining prison operations. “This is prison, these are prisoners, and they don’t get to say where they’re going to do their time.”

Democratic lawmakers, advocates for inmates and the prison guards’ union attacked the transfers as illegal and irresponsible.

“I think it’s pathetic policy,” said Steve Fama, staff attorney with the Prison Law Office, which represents prisoners. “Because the elected officials don’t have the will to figure out how to solve the crisis, we instead export convicts and spread our mess across the land.”

On the flip…

Assemblyman Spitzer doesn’t seem to understand state law, because an inmate’s consent is required before moving them out of state.  This is why the Governor unleashed a charm offensive to entice prisoners to move, showing them infomercial-like videos about the great amenities and tasty food at their new home.  This persuaded a whopping 300 or so prisoners to consent to move, far less than needed.  So he just ordered a forced exile.

Now, the problem for Schwarzenegger is that he already has a contract in place with privately run prisons for them to take these inmates off the state’s hands.  So if he doesn’t fill the beds, the state is out a lot of money.  Ultimately that’s what this comes down to, in addition to a feeble attempt to shift the problem by shipping it out of state.

This shows to me that the root causes of our prison crisis are still being ignored.  If you want to really know why we’re at twice our capacity in state lockups, read this.

Defense attorneys are protesting a drug crackdown on skid row, saying petty narcotics users are increasingly being sent to prison instead of receiving treatment that could cure their addictions.

Since September, police and prosecutors have targeted drug dealing in the 5th Street corridor – an area bordered by 4th and 6th streets, Broadway and Central Avenue – which police said was a hotspot of drug crimes.

Though law enforcement officials have hailed the effort, defense lawyers say it is harming some who need help.

“They’re basically cleaning out skid row by putting people into state prison, where there really isn’t room … either,” said Deputy Public Defender Lisa Lichtenstein, who handles numerous downtown drug cases.

She said that since the fall, minor drug cases that in the past might have resulted in possession charges that could lead to treatment have been prosecuted as drug sales, which can result in prison sentences for those convicted.

In many cases, Lichtenstein said, the drug sales charges are against addicts selling a small amount to pay for their own habit. “These are very small amounts of drugs, 10 dollars’ worth, maybe $20,” she said.

So nonviolent offenders who desperately need medical treatment are being hauled off to overflowing jails in order to make downtown Los Angeles safe for loft development (even though the loft market is flatlining downtown).  They can’t fit in the jails, so the solution agreed upon is to export the problem.  This doesn’t address future needs, as 6 or 9 months down the road another batch of prisoners will need to be outsourced.  And so human beings are sold, actually literally sold to private for-profit prisons if you think about it, and the cycle which propagated this crisis goes unbroken.

I want you to read some of a letter posted at the great liberal blog Orcinus.  Sara Robinson’s brother is in a California prison as we speak, and the conditions are… well just read it.

We are on lockdown status — all of us. There was an incident in the hall outside my cell. An inmate was cut up pretty bad and nearly died out right in front of us. He was just left laying there for too long before help was summoned.

That was Wednesday. The investigation doesn’t start until Monday, and lockdown will continue until they get a name. It’s a very timely incident: COs [correction officers] get hazard pay until it is resolved. This close to the holidays, it only makes sense to put off the investigation as long as possible […]

Another scam is the library. No, I don’t get “points” [toward release or better conditions] for contributing to it — I only feed the machine. Upon checking out a book, you sign a trust release for the amount of the book. These are processed every week. When a book isn’t returned in seven days, you are charged for its full cost.

But availability to the library is only given every TWO weeks. I didn’t know this, until I was charged for two. Both books were turned in at the next available date — but too late to avoid paying for them. This way, one book will pay for itself over and over.

By the way, these books are ALL donated by inmates.

I was also charged for two T-shirts. I received them sleeveless, and was charged for destruction of state property. They’ll go back to the laundry, and be re-issued to another inmate, who will be charged for them, too — as was the person who got them before me. The shirts have cost me $15 apiece so far. They were made by inmates in Prison Industry Authority jobs.

As they say, read the whole thing.  The corrections process is broken in so very many ways, and the emphasis almost seems to be on dehumanizing prisoners, virtually ensuring their return after they get out.  Many come in on victimless crimes and come back again and again.  And they’re treated completely inhumanely, and now shipped away from their homes.

It’s not “sexy” to give a damn about prisoners; just look at that quote from Assemblyman Spitzer for proof.  But this is a serious problem that speaks to our humanity and our dignity.  What we’ve done is to practically create a second-tiered culture in California, one which is growing at a faster rate than can be managed.  The Democrats in the Legislature need to embrace the Little Hoover Commission Report, stop this forced emigration proposal, and come up with a same set of policies that rewards rehabilitation and treatment and understands the goals of incarceration, which are not to let people rot but to ensure that they pay their debt to society and move on.

“Too Much Brick and Mortar”

So the Governor’s borrow-and-build solution to the current prison crisis yielded a surprising couple of paragraphs from the chief Democratic legislator on the committee that would oversee it.  I don’t know what to make of Gloria Romero’s statement:

Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), a longtime advocate of expanded rehabilitation programs in the state prison system and chairwoman of a legislative committee that oversees corrections, stood with the governor as he unveiled his proposal. Romero said she was optimistic that Schwarzenegger’s plan would help foster the kind of reforms she seeks.

“We have historically paid little attention to what happens after [inmates] get that $200 and the bus ticket out,” she said. “We will never merely build ourselves out of this problem.”

Little of the new spending the governor is proposing would be used for rehabilitation.

Why exactly is she rolling over on this one?  The proposal accomplishes the opposite of her goals.

In fact, it devotes most of its spending to more beds, and not rehabilitation and reform.  In addition, the Governor will set up a 17-member sentencing commission consisting of the Attorney General, legislators, citizens groups, the corrections secretary and a judge.  Their ostensible directive is to review sentencing guidelines, but the Governor has already made clear that three-strikes is off the table, and look what they’ll be spending their time on in the midst of a time where we may face a cap on inmates:

Commissioners would spend their first year examining whether the state’s mandatory three-year parole period could be safely shortened for some ex-convicts. The governor is also proposing an $11 billion building program to add space for thousands of additional inmates and changes to the state parole system.

Shouldn’t we be looking at the sentences of the people actually GOING TO JAIL to solve the problem of too many people in jail?  Wouldn’t that be the smart thing to do in the first year?

I still believe that you will not build your way into a solution on prison reform, and any proposal that primarily borrows money to sink it into more brick and mortar ends up making some people rich, more people incarcerated, and the same problem in five years.  The recidivism rate in California is 70%, the worst in the nation.  The Governor described this as “unacceptable” but gave no step to actually reducing that rate other than giving the recidivists a better place to sleep when they come back.