Tag Archives: early release

Living 21 Years In The Past

The SacBee reports that Tough On Crime types are trotting out the same symbols that Lee Atwater used in 1988 to sink a Democratic Presidential candidate.

Willie Horton’s shadow haunts the Capitol as lawmakers wrestle with how to cut $1.2 billion from state prisons without endangering public safety.

More than two decades after Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush used televised ads of murderer Horton to paint presidential opponent Michael Dukakis as soft on crime, state GOP lawmakers are slapping Democrats with a similar charge over proposed prison cuts.

The politically explosive issue, coupled with opposition from some law enforcement groups, is making many Democrats jittery – especially those with aspirations for higher office.

I’m hearing that a lot of this nonsense is being pushed by astroturf front groups for the prison guard’s union.  And considering that Horton was the kind of violent offender who would be exempted from any changes in the law under the plan on offer, it’s simply baseless.  But this may be more about getting prison guard money and law enforcement support in future elections.  But it has the effect of legitimizing the kind of nonsense that has destroyed our prison system, given us the highest recidivism rate in the nation, put the prison health care system in the hands of a federal receiver due to Constitutional violations, and drawn a demand from federal judges to reduce the population by 44,000.

And it’s working, of course.

Bass proposes to eliminate a provision in the Senate-passed plan that has attracted the most intense opposition.

Known as “alternative custody,” the controversial proposal would allow the release of up to 6,300 low-level, nonviolent inmates who are elderly, medically infirm, or have less than a year remaining on their sentences.

Inmates released under the plan would be subject to electronic monitoring under “house arrest,” which could include placement in a residence, local program, hospital or treatment center.

Because blind people with one leg are dangers to society, and we should spend more money warehousing them than we do on the average higher education student.  Makes perfect sense.  Not to mention the fact that the judges will probably release these same offenders anyway, as part of the federal mandate.

The real fear is that the Assembly will water down the sentencing commission so that lawmakers will have to affirmatively pass their recommendations into law instead of having to pass legislation to prevent those recommendations from being enacted.  Assembly Majority Leader Alberto Torrico, running for Attorney General, basically says in the piece that he wants such a change.  It’s a subtle but important difference; essentially the recommendations will be easier to kill under the weakened standard.  And so we continue the endless Tough On Crime march that has put us into a ditch.

Meanwhile, as John Myers notes, intransigence on sensible prison reform will simply increase the eventual budget deficit:

Then there’s the never-ending state budget blues. The original prison plan, when added to February’s budget cuts and gubernatorial plans to reduce prison spending, was a $1.2 billion part of the deficit solution written into law; the original bill, alone, was estimated to save as much as $600 million. But that was with those alternatives to prison cell custody and fewer crimes resulting in felony one-way tickets to the joint. The ‘Plan B’ version, say staffers, may come up as much as $200 million short (and that’s assuming all of the original savings estimated were valid).

In some years, a $200 million gap in the California state budget may not be the end of the world. But this is no ordinary year; cuts a fraction of that size are forcing all kinds of shutdowns of state services. And if this plan becomes the new way to go on prisons, it’s going to leave a lot of budget watchers — and Californians — wondering what happens next.

Democrats are wrong if they think they can finesse the right into taking the charge that they are “coddling murderers” off the table.  Just look at eMeg, claiming that a sentencing commission would reverse three strikes, about as factual a charge as Sarah Palin’s “death panels.”  They’ll always be smeared, so they might as well do the right thing for once.

Steinberg, Democrats Say They Have The Votes For Modest Prison Reform

The short-term fights are starting to be VERY short-term.  Following up on an earlier item, Democrats in the legislature plan to hold a vote on prison reform as early as Thursday, that would clarify $1.2 billion dollars in cuts.  And they don’t need any Republican votes to do it.

Over objections from Republican lawmakers, the Legislature plans to take up a majority-vote prison package Thursday that is designed to reduce the state’s inmate population by 27,300 and is backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The overall package would save $1.2 billion in part by reducing certain property crimes to misdemeanors, placing low-level parolees on global positioning system monitoring and sending older, infirm prisoners to house arrest or medical facilities to serve the final 12 months of their sentences.

The initial plan included an independent sentencing commission that could report back on changes to the runaway sentencing laws at the heart of the prison crisis.  I don’t see that mentioned in this article, or anywhere else.  Hopefully that remains part of the solution.  And like the rest, lawmakers can enact it on a majority-vote basis (which means that the solutions wouldn’t take effect for 90 days).  Darrell Steinberg reiterated his support today.

“I’m confident we’ll have the votes,” said Steinberg, who will caucus with Democrats tomorrow

Steinberg said the Senate would vote on the governor’s plan, but with slight modifications to clarify which elderly and infirm inmates could be eligible for alternative custody and release.

“The intent has never been to carte blanche release any inmates, elderly, infirm inmates,” he said. “It never has been, but there has been some concern expressed, so we want to make sure that there are very tight criteria that would even allow for the possibility of allowing elderly and infirm inmates to be released.”

I prefer the People’s Budget Fix, which would stop putting nonviolent drug offenders in overcrowded prisons, focus on reducing recidivism through rehabilitation and treatment, institute risk-based parole supervision rather than blanket supervision that inevitably raises the rates of recidivism (often on technical violations of parole), and address the most ineffective areas of the criminal justice system – the burdensome, brutal three strikes law, and the death penalty.  The People’s Budget Fix coalition held a rally today.  You can hear Leland Yee speaking about it here and here.

And I hope they keep fighting.  I hope we have a sane criminal justice policy caucus in the legislature as a counterweight to the tough on crime troglodytes.  But while the Democratic/Schwarzenegger package isn’t perfect, but it’s the first step in the right direction in 30 years.  Particularly if the sentencing commission is included in the package, it will be historic and very important.  We will finally end the long march of building more prisons and warehousing inmates without giving them the tools to actually rehabilitate themselves and become productive members of society, and toward a future where we spend less, create more productive citizens and actually make our state safer.

Intrigue: UPDATED

Very interesting stuff going on.

This afternoon we got the Leak of the Week from Capitol Weekly – a look at Dennis Hollingsworth’s letter to his entire caucus.  It’s in budget-ese, but Zed is positively giddy about all the cuts to social services, all the denial of fee increases, and he’s basically telling his caucus they got everything they wanted.  It was good to see the inside thinking, especially if Yacht Party members turned around and voted against the budget.  They know that their preferred option is deeply unpopular, and would rather distance themselves from this solution and make the Democrats own the budget.  So this was a key document counteracting that.

Then at around 2:30, Michael Rothfeld changed his original process story about legislators building support for the deal into this bombshell:

The state budget deal negotiated by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders would reduce the population of California prisons by nearly 27,000 inmates in the current fiscal year.

That would be done with a combination of new measures, including allowing some inmates to finish their sentences on home detention, creating new incentives for completion of rehabilitation programs and scaling back parole supervision for the least serious offenders.

The proposal, details of which were obtained by The Times, would save a total of $1.2 billion in the coming year.

It is unclear whether Republicans will vote for a budget plan that includes reduction of the state prison system, which now houses 170,000 inmates. Some GOP votes are needed to pass a budget in California.

If Republicans demur, the Democrats who dominate the Legislature could approve the prison proposal as separate legislation with a simple majority vote, which would not require GOP support […]

The budget plan also would create a sentencing commission to reexamine the state penal code, which would not save money immediately but would advance plans under discussion by lawmakers for years. The commission would be charged with establishing new sentencing guidelines by July 1, 2012.

Prisons are slated for $1.2 billion in cuts in the budget, and most stories last night claimed that included no early release.  Clearly Republicans – and possibly the Governor – saw those cuts as best employed by turning the prisons into Public Storage units, cutting all drug treatment and vocational training programs and reducing corrections officer overtime.  So this looked to be a bait-and-switch by the Democratic legislature.

Except nobody seems to know how the LA Times got this story.  And less than an hour later, Sam Blakeslee alerts the media:

Throughout budget negotiations we insisted that Republican votes would never be provided for a budget deal that included early release of prisoners.

Our caucus and staff developed a cut strategy for corrections that provided the necessary savings to close the deficit without risking public safety.

We had a clear understanding with the democrats that NO corrections bill would be a part of the budget and that we would have an honest chance to contest the policy issues in the light of day in August.  

Just two hours ago I learned from staff that Senate democrats are concocting a radioactive corrections bill that includeds the worst of the worst _ sentencing commission and release of 27,000 prisoners, etc

When I spoke with Dennis he was as surprised and upset as I was regarding what appears to be a serious breach of the agreement in the Big 5.

I have called and personally told both Karen and Darrell that their will be no republican votes for any portion of the budget if they allow such a bill to be part of the package.

This seems just a little too neat to me.  This report was leaked to the Times anonymously, after a separate email from the Senate GOP gets leaked showing what a great snow job they think they got over the Democrats.  And then Blakeslee has an email out to his caucus – within less than an hour of the story leak – that comes up with a credible reason to shut down the deal, blaming those double-crossing Democrats.

FWIW I’d love a sentencing commission/early release of nonviolent offenders bill to become a reality, but I hardly believe that Senate Democrats, who as a caucus have participated in 30 years’ worth of sentencing increases, and who scuttled a sentencing commission bill from Gloria Romero just last year, would sneak this into a budget bill out of nowhere, with complete language less than a day after a deal was reached.  It would be completely out of line with prior history.  It doesn’t scan at all.  

But it’s sure a bonne chance for Republicans to have this fall in their lap…

Discussion in OC Progressive’s diary.

…OK, so the Governor’s Corrections Secy is briefing reporters.  And will you look at that, the Times’ story was wrong, as was Asm. Blakeslee!  The report of 27,000 released is misleading, says the Secretary, but the Administration is interested in some reforms, including a sentencing commission.  Wow, that’s great, at least in theory.  They are offering early release credits that would maybe release 1,700 total.  This looks more and more like a coordinated hissy fit laundered through a compliant media.

Lawsuits, Lawsuits, Lawsuits

There’s a confluence of high-profile laswsuits against the state today, on big topics with far-reaching consequences.  First, the medical community is suing over Medi-Cal payments:

Doctors, hospitals and health care providers filed a class-action lawsuit Monday seeking to block the state from cutting payments to them for treating the poor.

The lawsuit argues that an upcoming 10 percent rate cut to Medi-Cal — the state-run health insurance program serving 6.5 million low-income residents — will exacerbate a shortage of doctors, dentists and pharmacists willing to treat poor patients because payments are so low.

“Medi-Cal already doesn’t cover the cost of providing care,” said Dr. Richard Frankenstein, president of the California Medical Association, which led the lawsuit. “If these cuts take effect, Medi-Cal patients will be forced to seek care in already overcrowded hospital emergency rooms, which undermines access to care for all Californians.”

The suit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on Monday, seeks an immediate injunction to block the reduction from taking effect July 1.

San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom has been at the forefront of criticizing these payment cuts, and when he talked to bloggers at the CDP convention he predicted this lawsuit would be successful.  The future of emergency room care and Medi-Cal really hangs in the balance: if the payments are inadequate, hospitals and doctors might turn these patients away, straining the ER system and increasing the crisis in health care access.

In a separate lawsuit, a taxpayer group is suing to block $12 billion in prison construction bonds.

Even though the state is facing a $20 billion dollar deficit and our high schools, colleges, universities, health care facilities, and food banks alike are threatened with billions of dollars of reduced funding, the Governor and our Legislative leaders want to build 53,000 new prison and jail beds. We already have 170,000 prisoners in California. We don’t need more prison beds — we need sentencing reform and better support in the community for recovering drug addicts, people with mental illness, and parolees.

That’s why we are filing our lawsuit today to stop the Governor from borrowing $7.4 billion in lease revenue bonds to build new prison beds, at a total cost of over $12 billion including interest payments. Operating these new prison beds will cost at least $1.5 billion each year, or a staggering total of $37 billion over the next 25 years. Our lawsuit argues that the $7.4 billion in lease revenue bonds violates the requirement in the California Constitution that all significant long term debts be approved by the voters. The lawsuit aims to force the state to ask its voters whether they want to build the 53,000 prison and jail beds proposed in AB 900. The New York Times has dubbed AB 900 as “the single largest prison construction program in the history of the US.” Not only is AB 900 a tremendous waste of government resources, it also threatens the very premise of democracy by shutting voters off from their constitutional rights.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.  And considering that a year after passage of AB 900, not one bed has been constructed, I’d say that this is a money pit and taxpayers need to step in to stop the digging.  We have better solutions in the way of sentencing reform, and while Democrats in both chambers of the legislature play politics over which sentencing bill will become the primary one (Sen. Romero’s clearly should, IMO), the crisis grows.  And given that these construction bonds are little more than a boondoggle, California will probably end up following the lead of several states and release a mass of inmates early.  There are real solutions to be had here, but pissing away $12 billion dollars is not one of them.

As if the state didn’t have enough problems…  

Prison Policy & Open Thread

I have a post up at Hullabaloo, where I’m proud to be writing, about the disturbing new Pew report which shows that more than 1 in 100 adults in this country are behind bars, and when you add in the parole and probation system it’s probably more like 1 in 50.  This is fast becoming the biggest problem that state legislatures face, and in California it’s magnified by soaring costs, overcrowding, and a continued fealty to “Tough on Crime” solutions.

I highlighted what two red states are doing as a novel solution, something we could certainly try in California instead of our haphazard collection of early release and building more jails and nixing independent sentencing commissions:

Kansas and Texas are well on their way. Facing daunting projections of prison population growth, they have embraced a strategy that blends incentives for reduced recidivism with greater use of community supervision for lower-risk offenders. In addition, the two states increasingly are imposing sanctions other than prison for parole and probation violators whose infractions are considered “technical,” such as missing a counseling session. The new approach, born of bipartisan leadership, is allowing the two states to ensure they have enough prison beds for violent offenders while helping less dangerous lawbreakers become productive, taxpaying citizens.

The comments over there are, as usual, great, and I wanted to open the discussion here.  Plus we haven’t had an open thread in a while, so here ya go.

California’s Prison Crisis: Another Deal Without Reform

I’ve found myself wistful over the demise of health care reform in California, if only because it was so painful to watch.  It was fairly glaring from the start that the resources and the budget structure weren’t there to manage such a big issue.  The lesson learned should be that a broader consensus has to be reached, but also that you have to work within the narrow structures forced by the state’s processes, or else work to change them.  Such is also the case with prison reform, which is actually a far less insurmountable a goal.

About a week ago we heard about a potential “deal” on solving the prison crisis, where the state would settle the lawsuits that are forcing the possibility of a dramatic release of prisoners.  But notice how this is being done.  It’s a “deal” without reform.


SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration is exploring a settlement of two lawsuits that would require California to dramatically reduce the number of inmates in its overcrowded prisons — and limit the Legislature’s influence on the issue, according to participants in the discussions.

The settlement discussions in the federal court cases, which have been consolidated, are in an early stage, and the framework of a deal has not been ironed out.

The talks are not formally tied to Schwarzenegger’s proposal last week to release tens of thousands of low-risk prisoners to save the state money. That plan, which essentially reverses the court position he has taken opposing the early release of inmates, is expected to die in the Legislature, where it would need approval from Republicans who adamantly oppose it.

But it could become the basis for a negotiated settlement, prisoners’ lawyers said.

The proposal is “a step in the right direction,” said Donald Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office and one of the attorneys for inmates in the case. His group is asking a panel of three federal judges to cap the state’s prison population.

“We would rather settle this case and have the state do this than have the court do it,” Specter said.

Even if lawmakers reject his proposal, Schwarzenegger could implement the inmate releases he envisions as part of a settlement, known as a consent decree, that the judges would approve. That would put extreme pressure on legislators to make the appropriate changes to state law.

This has nothing to do with reforming a broken system, just as the absurd attempt to build our way out of the problem last year did nothing.  It’s the draconian sentencing and parole issues that are leading to overcrowding, a shortage of rehabilitation and treatment services, and the country’s largest recidivism rate.  This is completely obvious.  Here’s a quick statistic: California has 30 times as many children between the ages of 14 and 17 in prison for life without the possibility of parole than THE ENTIRE REST OF THE WORLD COMBINED.  There’s actually a bill, SB999 (Yee), that would end this horrific practice.  But it’s by no means the only outsized sentence that we have on the books.

You can go back and forth on who should get released and what crimes should be absolved, and politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, can demagogue the issue and scare the bejeebus out of their constituents with lurid tales of “criminals roaming our streets,” but what they won’t tell you is that this is a problem of their own doing.  By sentencing nonviolent offenders to overcrowded jails that become little more than schools on how to commit violent crimes, they are threatening public safety and risking a total collapse of the system.  Only by attacking this crisis at the root will anything be solved.  And in this way, it mirrors the health care debate.  The Governor is seeking a “deal” with a narrow group of interests without looking at the larger problems in the debate.  In health care it was costs; in prison reform it’s sentencing.

The 45 days allowed by Proposition 58 for the legislature to act in this special session and the urgency of the situation may bring about some thoughtful policy in this area or it may prove an impossibility and devolve into a new orgy of demagoguery and what our Governor calls “Kabuki theater”-a stylized and ritualized play on the stage of politics where our elected leaders try to prove they are tougher on crime. Given how we have gotten into this mess, with the constant one-upmanship of over 1000 laws passed ratcheting up sentences for all sorts of crimes since 1977 when California switched to a determinate sentencing law scheme (fixed terms rather than leaving some discretion in sentencing and releasing criminals with an eye towards rehabilitation), I am somewhat dubious. California is now responsible for 1 out of every 5 new inmates in the country in prison. Some Republicans in the legislature still don’t get it. Tomorrow, during the regular session, the Assembly Public Safety Committee will take up at least two proposals to increase sentences and add to that list of 1000.

The failure of leadership in this area is truly sad to see.  And until we actually address these sundry problems in a comprehensive way that looks at root causes instead of playing to what we think citizens want to hear, that leadership deficit will widen.

The Prison Bubble Bursts

Arnold Schwarzenegger, recognizing that you don’t build prisons as quickly as one of his movie sets, understanding that the upcoming 3-judge panel decision on the prison crisis was bound to be punitive, is planning to dismiss 12% of the prison population.

In what may be the largest early release of inmates in U.S. history, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration is proposing to open the prison gates next year for some 22,000 low-risk offenders.

According to details of a budget proposal made available to The Bee, the administration will ask the Legislature to authorize the release of certain non-serious, nonviolent, non-sex offenders who are in the final 20 months of their terms.

The proposal would cut the prison population by 22,159 inmates and save the cash-strapped state an estimated $256 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1 and more than $780 million through June 30, 2010. The proposal also calls for a reduction of more than 4,000 prison jobs, most of them involving correctional officers.

This seems to be as much about saving money as resolving the crisis.  Still, it’s a ballsy move.  Except it reveals the distasteful options that result when you let a problem go this long without doing anything.

Instead of releasing 22,000 prisoners who have had rehabilitation and treatment and education and the skills needed to rotate back into civil society, the Governor wants to release 22,000 prisoners who went in for nonviolent offenses, but who got caught up in a crowded system, completely lacking in the treatment services they needed, and who essentially were matriculating in Crime College.  A system as bad as California’s turns nonviolent offenders violent.  It doesn’t equip them for the real world.  And that can be witnessed by the nation’s largest recidivism rate.

This is the problem that has little in the way of good solutions.  Skimming off the top is something you can do, but its consequences are real, and the Tough on Crime folks will seize upon every offense made by these prisoners, and demonize Schwarzenegger as “Governor Pardon” (by the way, this is the END of his aspirations for higher office, this proves he’s not interested because this is such campaign fodder).  The best solution is a long-term one that doesn’t scoop out the nonviolent offenders, but fundamentally changes the sentencing guidelines so the clog becomes reduced, and taking advantage of less crowded prisons in the interim to implement real rehabilitation and treatment programs that can reverse this disappointing recidivism trend.

UPDATE: Skittish, afraid-of-their-own-shadow lawmakers predictably stand up in opposition to this plan, because the other option of having the courts mandate an even larger release is such a better idea.  I don’t think skimming off the top is such a bright idea either, but no legislator dares wrap it in a critique of the failed prison system.